31 Days of History: 11 July

On 11 July 1906 (103 years ago), the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) achieved official status as part of the Smithsonian Institution.

The SAAM actually contains two separate museums--the National Portrait Gallery and the Museum of American Art. Both celebrate the American experience. From their website, "The SAAM, the nation's first collection of American art, is an unparalleled record of the American experience. The collection captures the aspirations, character and imagination of the American people throughout three centuries. The American Art Museum is the home to one of the largest and most inclusive collections of American art in the world.".

The Smithsonian American Art Museum, begun in 1829, was the first federal art collection. It actually started before the founding of the Smithsonian (which occurred in 1846). The museum began with gifts from private collections and art organizations, primarily from the collection of John Varden. (In an interesting tidbit--one of the "strings attached" to Varden's offer was the stipulation that he be hired as the curator for the museum). A significant milestone occurred in 1906, when the probated will of Harriet Lane Johnston, an art collector and niece of President James Buchanan (another interesting tidbit: she also served as official hostess in the White House for President Buchanan), forced an important decision in a federal court: the recognition that the Smithsonian's collection formed a "National Gallery of Art." With this decision, the collection grew rapidly and took on major significance.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has had many names over the years-Smithsonian Art Collection, National Gallery of Art, National Collection of Fine Arts, and National Museum of American Art. The museum changed to its current name in October 2000.

The museum is housed in one of the most historic buildings in DC, the Old Patent Office Building (authorized in 1836 by Andrew Jackson). I've previously blogged about this building and it's long and distinguished history--you can read about it here.

Tune in tomorrow for an exciting, historically relevant bit about the burning of the White House and one of SAAM's most important artifacts.

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