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National Museum of American History Opens Exhibit on “The Norie Marine Atlas and the Guano Trade”

“Guano, though no saint, works many miracles”–Peruvian proverb
February 16, 2016

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will open its new exhibition “The Norie Marine Atlas and the Guano Trade” Feb. 17 in the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery. On view through January 2017, the exhibition focuses on the effect the seabird guano trade had on American expansion and exploration beginning in the mid-1800s, an effort that employed many of the swiftest and largest of the American clipper ships.

Peruvian guano was the first and most important trade commodity used in fertilizers and gunpowder beginning in the 19th century. The need for the seabird droppings was so great that even President Millard Fillmore addressed the American desire for it in his State of the Union speech. The craze for the resource eventually led to the 1856 Guano Islands Act, which allowed American citizens to claim guano-rich islands in the Caribbean, South America and the Pacific Ocean for the U.S. government.

The display showcases John Norie’s Marine Atlas, a large, bound collection of hand-printed nautical charts dating to the early 1800s. Single Norie charts exist in several collections, but the museum’s bound volume is unique and an astonishingly beautiful example of the engraver’s and chart-maker’s art in the early 19th century.

“The mid-19th-century American guano trade, which involved the Smithsonian, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of State and two American presidents, had an immense impact on foreign policy that lasts to the present day,” said Paul Johnston, the museum’s curator of maritime history.

There are only a few handwritten notations on two charts in the back of the Marine Atlas, which are interesting as they indicate a voyage or two to the Guano Islands along the southwest coast of Peru. These charts were literal treasure maps, providing in-depth markings of shorelines, ports, local elevations, logos, legends and even scales. In an era without GPS, these charts were invaluable to sailors and prospectors making the journey to the Caribbean, South America or the Pacific.

The Atlas will be augmented by images and models of American clipper ships and objects related to the guano trade. The display presents samples of guano used in agriculture fertilizer, Pacific Guano Co. cards and a collection of rare books and corporate literature on the guano trade and its applications from the Smithsonian’s Dibner Library collection. These items each played a part in representing the guano trade and the American desire to explore, expand past its borders and capitalize on new ideas and opportunities.

Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history. It helps people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future. The museum is continuing to renovate its west exhibition wing, developing galleries on democracy and culture. For more information, visit https://americanhistory.si.edu. The museum is located on Constitution Avenue, between 12th and 14th streets N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.