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Exhibiting Transportation at the Smithsonian
 
Arts and Industries Building, Smithonian Institution, about 1890
Arts and Industries Building, Smithonian Institution, about 1890

The Smithsonian began collecting artifacts of transportation history in the 1880s, and has continued to do so ever since. Transportation has played a special role in the Smithsonian’s technological collections. More than just machines, transportation technologies have been seen as a key part of American national identity.

J. Elfreth Watkins, the Pennsylvania Railroad engineer who was the Smithsonian’s first curator of transportation, put the connection between transportation and American identity most clearly.

Through Watkins’s efforts, the story of technological progress told at the Smithsonian became primarily a story of national progress. Technology, he wrote, not only improved the “world’s material progress” but especially benefited America. “Nowhere upon the face of the globe does mankind partake of the benefits of personal liberty to as great an extent as in free America. Without the railway and the telegraph . . . this enviable condition could not have been reached.” The railroad in particular was responsible for bringing the country together: “We have become one people—speaking one language, actuated by a common impulse ‘with malice toward none and charity for all.’”

Watkins exulted in the power of technology, declaring that “the birth of the steamboat and locomotive were [sic] coeval with the establishment and first growth of this great Republic, and that by them were secured eternal Liberty! Union!! Peace!!!”

Boat Hall, National Museum, about 1890
Boat Hall, National Museum, about 1890
Early National Museum collections combined technology and ethnology, documenting the inventions of various cultures and countries. The story of water transportation was presented through a comprehensive display that included Native American canoes, fishing boats from the West Indies and other parts of the world, and a series of models illustrating the evolution of 19th century American fishing vessels.
Transportation exhibition, Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, about 1890
Transportation exhibition, Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, about 1890
In the late 19th century, the National Museum’s technology collections included modes of transportation used by cultures around the world. Dog sledges from Alaska, wagons from New Mexico, elephant saddles from India, and a sled from Norway, complete with a reindeer, were displayed along with steam locomotives such as the John Bull (visible at the lower right).
Exhibit of rail sections, Smithsonian National Museum
Exhibit of rail sections, Smithsonian National Museum
Curator J. Elfreth Watkins adapted the exhibit style used by the Smithsonian’s anthropologists to technology, as with this display of the different types of railroad track sections.
Spirit of St. Louis on display at Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, about 1927
Spirit of St. Louis on display at Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, about 1927
Paul Garber, the curator of aviation, collected Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis for the Smithsonian the moment it landed in Paris. It was immedately one of the museum’s most popular exhibits.
1913 Ford Model T, arriving at the Smithsonian in 1935
1913 Ford Model T, arriving at the Smithsonian in 1935
Harvey Carlton Locke asked if the Smithsonian would be interested in collecting his 1913 Model T Ford. “I wish to see her,” he wrote the Smithsonian, “in some museum where she will be looked after as I have done all these years.” The Smithsonian needed a Model T to illustrate the development of the automobile and accepted his offer.
Electric cars on display in “Automobile Row,” Arts and Industries Building, late 1920s
Electric cars on display in “Automobile Row,” Arts and Industries Building, late 1920s
In the 1920s, transportation exhibitions were organized by type of technology, and ordered to show technological advances.
Wheel and piston from the DeWitt Clinton locomotive, 1831
Wheel and piston from the DeWitt Clinton locomotive, 1831
In 1891 Smithsonian curators collected this early American railroad relic—a wheel and a piston from, according to the National Museum’s 1891 annual report, the “first engine placed into service on . . . the oldest railway in the state of New York.” On the wheel is inscribed “First Trip, August 9th 1831.”
Hansom cab on display at Smithsonian Arts and Industries building, about 1945
Hansom cab on display at Smithsonian Arts and Industries building, about 1945
A Washington family used this hansom cab through the 1920s, and only a few years later it was on display at the Smithsonian.
 
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