The original purpose of the Arts and Industries Building (AIB), as it’s now known, was to house the Smithsonian Institution’s growing natural history collection in Washington, D.C., and to alleviate overcrowding in the Smithsonian Institution Building (the Castle).

Growing Pains

The AIB was known as the National Museum Building from when it opened in 1881 until 1911; by this point, it had already become too small for the museum’s constantly expanding collections and increasing number of public visits. Second floor galleries had been added to the building as a stopgap measure, but the need for a second, larger structure was clear.

Annual Reports in 1911 began referring to the building as the “Old National Museum” or “Old Building” – a reference to the construction of the new Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, which opened for tours that same year.

The name “Arts and Industries Building” first appears in the 1916-1917 Report of the Superintendent of Buildings and Labor, although other documents from the period suggest that the AIB had already been known by that name for several years. The words “National Museum” are still carved in stone over the building’s entrance.

View of the Asian exhibit circa 1910.