Report of The Blue Ribbon Commission on the National Museum of American HistorySmithsonian Institution - National Museum of American History


Appendix B: Overview of NMAH Collections

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History is responsible for the collection, care and preservation of more than 3 million objects. The collections represent the nation's heritage in the areas of science, technology, sociology and culture. The collections include: first ladies' gowns, a Samuel Morse telegraph, locomotives, tools, an Alexander Graham Bell telephone, flags, American-made quilts, Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves, Duke Ellington's sheet music, and TV puppet star Howdy Doody.

The Museum is organized into six collecting divisions. A description of the collections and the curatorial expertise in each division follows:

Archives Center

This division oversees about 9,000 cubic feet of archival and documentary materials that complement the Museum's collections of artifacts and support the study of related topics in American life. Some collections come as part of a larger donation that also include artifacts held in other divisions; other collections have information relating to artifacts, donors and other individuals represented in exhibitions and collections. Strengths of the Archive Center's more than 500 collections include:

  • Advertising - These collections include 19th-century ephemera and print, radio and television advertisements documenting major post-World War II-era campaigns.
  • American Enterprise and Technology - This collection includes the personal papers and business records of such figures as Allen B. DuMont (television), Earl S. Tupper (plastics), Tom Carvel (ice cream), and Leo H. Beakeland ("Bakelite").
  • American Music - Highlights include the Duke Ellington collection of unpublished music, sound recordings, business records, photographs and other materials; the Sam DeVincent Collection of illustrated American Sheet Music; and the records of the Pratt Read (piano keyboards) and Wurlitzer (organs and other instruments) companies.

Cultural History

This division focuses on the everyday life of Americans. The collections and research specialties range from the material aspects of the home and workplace to traditional folk arts and 20th-century popular culture, visual arts, and music. The division has seven major collecting and program areas:

  • Business and Consumer Culture - These collections consist of 20th-century merchandise from the Headville, W.Va, post office and general store, as well as artifacts from the Hills Bros. Coffee Company, Walter Landor Package Designs, advertisements, menus, shopping carts, handbills, and signage.
  • Education, Civic and Voluntary Organizations - Artifacts from these collections are associated with teaching, scouting, youth and fraternal groups, police service, and fire fighting. The department houses two complete schoolrooms, each with teaching equipment, school desk patent models, textbooks, uniforms, and insignia.
  • Ethnic and Religious Communities - These collections include artifacts produced by ethnic groups and are generally identified with their occupational, domestic, and religious activities. Among them are furniture, food-related devices, clothing, tools, ritual devices, decorations, and folk arts and crafts belonging to Europeans, Latinos, Arabs, Asians, Gypsies, Jews, and Christians.
  • Hand Tools - This collection includes more than 5,000 traditional American tools, chests, and simple machines for working wood, stone, metal, leather, and shell largely from the 1800s and early 1900s. Trades represented include carpenter, stone carver, blacksmith, shoeshine man, ice cream cone maker, and garbage collector.
  • Musical History - These collections relate to the history of music and the development of instruments and performance styles and techniques of European and American music. NMAH possesses approximately 5,000 keyboard, string and wind instruments -- one of the world's most comprehensive collections of musical instruments. Sound recordings, sheet music, jazz artifacts, memorabilia, and a growing iconographic file support the collections. The division is also home to the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society. These world-renowned performing arts organizations use original sheet music and period instruments from the collections.
  • Popular Entertainment and Mass Media - These holdings include artifacts of 19th- and 20th-century commercial theater, film, radio, recordings, and television. Among the many objects are Hollywood props, movie posters and publicity stills, sheet music, puppets, theater programs, and 50,000 sound recordings from 1903 to the present.
  • Program in African American Culture (PAAC) - The purpose of PAAC is to research, document, and preserve the cultural legacy of Americans of African descent through public programs, publications, and other media. Materials and documents associated with PAAC are housed in the Archives Center, where the most requested collections are the Civil Rights Movement and the Gospel Music Collections.
  • Sports, Recreation and Leisure - These collections focus on artifacts used in competitive sports and recreation on all levels, including equipment, clothing, awards, souvenirs, stadium objects, playing cards, camping gear, and fitness equipment.

History of Technology

This division is concerned with the history of technology and its relationship with American society and culture.

  • Agriculture and Natural Resources - This collection includes 200,000 objects pertaining to the growth and development of the nation's farming, fishing, forestry, and mining industries. Of particular interest are documents and artifacts relevant to specific trends in particular regions and communities. The objects fall under six categories: Agriculture; Food Technology; Forestry and Wood products; Fisheries and Whaling; Mining and Metals; and Petroleum and Oil Refining. The natural resources collection consists of such items as a Kelly converter, oil drilling equipment, wood samples, miners' hats and safety lamps, and documentary material dating from the Civil War to the present. This is one of the largest collections at NMAH.
  • Armed Forces History - These collections document the history of the men and women of the armed forces of the United States through superb collections of American and limited foreign ordnance, firearms and swords; U.S. Army, Navy Marine, Army Air Force, and Coast Guard uniforms and insignia; national and military flags and banners; military and naval accouterments; and naval ship plans and archives. Key objects include the Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired the national anthem; and the Gunboat Philadelphia, sunk during the Revolutionary War.
  • Engineering and Industry - This collection encompasses three areas: Mechanical and Civil Engineering, Manufacturing, and Mechanisms. The collection includes over 100,000 objects with strong emphasis on the process of industrialization and its social and environmental effects.
  • Transportation - This collection documents the evolution of rail, water and road transportation. The collection holds more than 200 land vehicles, including locomotives, streetcars, motor vehicles, bicycles, and carriages, as well as other artifacts and apparatus related to vehicles and vessels. The objects are supported by a large archival collection that includes ship design plans, photographs, and locomotive models. Well known objects are the "John Bull" locomotive, built in 1841 in England for use in the U. S. and now the oldest operable locomotive anywhere; the 1866 Dudgeon Steam wagon, one of the earliest American cars; a Tucker Sedan; a 1913 Ford Model T; and Evel Knievel's motorcycle.

Information Technology and Society

This division develops, preserves, studies and interprets collections in the areas of computing and mathematics, electricity, graphic arts, numismatics, and photographic history.

  • Computing and Mathematics - This collection includes computers and related electronic devices, software, records, and ephemera that document the evolution of computers and their pervasive effects on modern American society. The collection is particularly rich in 19th- and 20th-century objects pertaining to the history of mathematics.
  • Electricity - These collections document the history of electricity, including lighting devices, motors and generators; communications technology, including telegraphy, magnetic recording, telephony, radio, and television; and lasers, transistors, and integrated circuits. Examples of Thomas Edison's inventions along with other representatives of the early development of electrical power are part of this collection.
  • Graphic Arts - This comprehensive collection includes 45,000 objects documenting the history and technology of printing and printmaking. The collection includes printing presses, type, matrices, engraving tools, and plates, as well as small collections of tools used in the related crafts of paper making and book binding. The holdings also include examples of printing for the blind, bank note engraving, and printed maps. The collection of prints contains work by artists of all nationalities and dates from the 15th-century to the present. The collection also documents the history of the news industry in this country, dating from colonial times.
  • Numismatics - These collections encompass the entire spectrum of materials illustrating the historical development of money since early times. Particularly well represented are coins, medals and currencies from ancient Greece, the Far East, and Russia. The strongest areas of the collections are U.S. coins and currency, from colonial times to the present. In addition, the collections include a broad array of medals and commemoratives, as well as credit cards and debit cards, and one of the first ATM machines.
  • Photographic History - This collection focuses on the worldwide history of the technology and practice of photography from its invention in 1839 to the present with special focus on photographic systems and photographic preservation. Photographs in this collection are directly related to the aesthetic, technical, or scientific history of photography. The collection includes over 150,000 images, 10,000 pieces of apparatus, and 300 patent models.

Science, Medicine and Society

This division is concerned with the history of science and technology as they relate to American culture.

  • Biological Sciences - These collections include molecular biology and biotechnology instrumentation; special apparatus and instrumentation used for field and laboratory research and in classroom education; artifacts documenting the social and political history of biology; artifacts relating to the roles of women and minorities in science; and trade literature associated with these areas.
  • Chemistry - These collections include apparatus and instrumentation for inorganic, organic, and biochemistry. The focus is on natural and synthetic polymers (plastics).
  • Medical Sciences - These collections are among the largest and most comprehensive of its kind in the world. They consist of objects related to many fields of the health sciences and areas of health care, such as dentistry, pharmacy, public health, and molecular medicine. These collections are supported by trade catalogues, advertising literature, posters, business records, and audiovisual and manuscript materials.
  • Modern Physics - This collection consists of instruments and apparatus used in the study of elementary particles and particle acceleration; it also includes numerous artifacts related to quantum electronics such as atomic clocks and atomic magnetometers.
  • Physical Sciences - These collections include apparatus of astronomy, chemistry, classical physics, meteorology, navigation, and surveying which are used for research, education, or practical purposes.

Social History

This division focuses on the public and private life of Americans from the 17th-century to the present.

  • Ceramics and Glass - These collections contain more than 30,000 ceramics and glassware made, used and marketed in America, including table, kitchen, toilet, decorative, archaeological, and industry wares.
  • Costume - These collections consist primarily of garments and accessories worn by Americans of all socioeconomic levels, from the late 17th-century to the present. They contain approximately 30,000 items that document what Americans looked like and how their clothing was made and sold.
  • Domestic Life - These collections consist of approximately 40,000 objects documenting American home life from the time of European settlement to the recent past. They include houses and outbuildings, as well as objects used to maintain them, and objects of home activities such as food preparation, consumption, recreation, and cosmetics.
  • Political History - The more than 100,000 objects in this collection relate to the political history of the United States, including the largest collection in the nation for the study of political campaigning and political advertising–techniques, symbols, and devices. Also significant are collections associated with presidential campaigns, the White House and the First Ladies, and the women's rights, labor, and Civil Rights movements.
  • Textiles - These collections consist of more than 50,000 items such as organic and synthetic fibers, yarns and fabrics; woven objects such as shawls, baskets and linens; and machines, tools, and implements related to the history of textiles technology. The collections also house the National Quilt Collection of over 370 quilts, as well as over 4,000 patent models of 19th-century inventions.

Prepared by NMAH Staff
March 2002

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