Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Throwback Thursday: October 13th, 1917

For this throwback Thursday, let’s take a look back in time to see what was happening at the Smithsonian on this day in 1917.  The nation was preparing for war as Europe sunk deeper and deeper into the stalemate of the First World War.  When the United States officially declared war, there was a mad scramble to build and equip an army to fight on such an international scale and the Smithsonian was no exception.

Letter from Woodrow Wilson to Charles D. Walcott, October 13, 1917, by Wilson, Woodrow 1856-1924, October 13,1917, Smithsonian Archives, SIA2014-06989.
On October 13, 1917, Smithsonian Secretary Charles D. Walcott received a letter from President Woodrow Wilson requesting space in the Natural History Building for the Bureau of War Risk Insurance. The Natural History Building had been open for just seven years at the time and curators were reasonably worried about moving the collections safely when the building was already quickly filling. The Bureau of War Risk Insurance, which provided life insurance to soldiers and sailors fighting abroad, rapidly moved into 15,000 square feet.

President Wilson made the point that the Bureau of War Risk Insurance was a newly legislated part of the Treasury Department. With the requirement of a minimum of five hundred employees, they needed significant office space much faster than anyone could hope to build it. The Treasury Department didn’t have five hundred desks sitting empty, and they found what they were looking for just a few blocks away in the modern, fireproof Natural History Building.

National Museum Closes for WWI Work, by Unknown, 1918, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 23905 or MAH-23905.
The state‐of‐the‐art fireproof building was especially valuable to an insurance bureau that needed to protect its records from as many dangers as possible. By July of the following year, the Bureau’s rapid growth eventually took over the entire building, closing the last exhibit halls to the public to be turned into office space. The Natural History Building was quickly returned to the Smithsonian and reopened to the public in 1919 just months after the war ended.

To find out more about the Bureau of War Risk Insurance at the Smithsonian, click here.

To learn more about the Smithsonian in World War One, check out the Smithsonian in Wartime exhibit.

Lisa Fthenakis, Program Assistant
Smithsonian Institution Archives

No comments:

Post a Comment