Spencer Baird and Ichthyology at the Smithsonian
In 1851, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations opened in London. An outgrowth of the local fairs and trade shows that had been going on for many years, the Great Exhibition was of a scale never before seen. Exhibitors from all over the world assembled to demonstrate the latest marvels of science, art, and industry, exhibited in a magnificent glass and steel structure called the Crystal Palace. During the five months it was open, the Exhibition attracted more than six million visitors. It was such a success that similar exhibitions began to spring up elsewhere, and the term "world's fair" entered the vocabulary. Subsequent Exhibitions became focused on particular themes or events.
The first such event in the United States came in 1876 in Philadelphia and celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It is difficult for us today to appreciate the importance placed on these exhibitions. This was America's chance to host the world and show how far it had come in its first century. The U. S. government's exhibits included one on American fisheries and fish culture. Spencer Baird spared no effort in making the fisheries exhibit a success. Much of the summer field work was suspended in 1876 in order to devote all of the Fish Commission's resources to the Exhibition. G. Brown Goode was placed in charge of the zoological and fisheries exhibits. A noteworthy feature was a series of casts of the principal American food fishes and other marine organisms. Goode (1876) wrote the book that accompanied the exhibit, giving a classification of the animals involved along with a list of their useful products and injurious traits.
In 1880, the German government staged a special international exhibition devoted entirely to fisheries. Foreign governments were invited to participate. The United States was late in responding and did not appropriate funds until February, two months before the Exhibition was scheduled to open. Baird was unable to participate, and he appointed Goode to serve as his deputy. Goode managed to gather all of the materials, had them packed, shipped them to Europe, and set them up in the assigned buildings in time for the opening on April 20. Baird persuaded several railroads and the German shipping company to transport all of the material from Washington to Europe and back again free of charge. The Exhibition was so popular that it remained open for two-and-a-half months instead of the originally planned one month. All of Goode's hard work paid off. The American display was a great success; it was "constantly thronged by admiring visitors" and received "many eulogistic and critical notices." As a final tribute, the Americans won the Grand Prize of the Emperor William, an ornamental silver bowl.
Three years later, another international fisheries exhibition took place in London. Once again, Goode was in charge of the American entry, assisted by Tarleton Bean and several others. This time, the appropriation was made in plenty of time, and everything was in place when the event opened in May, 1883. Goode reported from the Exhibition in a series of articles published in the journal Science. When the Exhibition closed on October 30, the United States again walked away with high honors, leading all of the foreign participants with 151 total medals, 50 of them gold. The Fish Commission alone won 18 gold medals. Afterwards, the American exhibit was sent home and reassembled as a permanent exhibit in the new National Museum building. (See the online presentation, "Fishery Exhibit," currently on view at the Smithsonian Web site. It is based on the 1886 Visitor's Guide, published by the Smithsonian.)
The period between 1851 and the First World War was the great age of world's fairs. The Smithsonian and the Fish Commission were constantly called upon to contribute to them. Indeed, Baird (1886) complained that these duties were beginning to hinder the regular work in the Museum. Among the noteworthy fairs was the World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans in 1885. In preparation for this, Baird asked David S. Jordan to direct a series of collecting expeditions to various rivers and streams in the south-central states. Representative samples of fishes were displayed at the Exposition. As a special feature of the Fish Commission's exhibit, the steamer Albatross, which had been working in the Gulf of Mexico, called at New Orleans and was opened to visitors for a period of ten days. Another important event was the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, held in observance of the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America. Tarleton Bean was the representative of the Fish Commission. Exhibits included ship models, fish casts, aquaria, and preserved fishes and other organisms.
Although the exhibitions undoubtedly put a severe strain on the operations of both the Smithsonian and the Fish Commission, they did perform an important outreach activity. They were among the Museum's first traveling exhibits. Many people learned about the activities of these agencies and about their subject matter. Through them, Baird managed to raise the profile of his institutions and to gain increased public understanding and support.
[ TOP ]