Arts and Industries Building Beginnings
MHT’s roots were in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building (A&I), which opened in 1881 to display objects from The United States Centennial Exhibition that took place in Philadelphia in 1876. Touted as “the most stupendous and successful competitive exhibition the world ever saw,” the Centennial heralded America’s arrival as an industrial power.
In addition, as the “National Museum,” A&I housed other treasures such as the Star-Spangled Banner, George Washington’s uniform, and Mary Lincoln’s dress. Collections soon outgrew the Victorian building, and it felt cramped, dusty, and antiquated by the 1920s. Administrators and curators alike were desperate to escape this old building, dubbed the “Nation’s Attic.”
“Gowns of the First Ladies” Arts and Industries Building, 1920s (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives)
Exhibition hall, Arts and Industries Building, 1920s (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives)