The history of the National Museum of Natural History's collections begins with specimens collected by the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842, and transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in 1858. The Smithsonian also received specimens by gift or purchase in the late 1840s. In 1850 newly appointed Assistant Secretary Spencer F. Baird donated his personal natural history collection to the Institution. During the 1850s and 1860s several expeditions which explored the American West also sent specimens to the Institution; and the dissolution of the National Institute brought additional collections in 1862. The collections were initially housed in the Smithsonian Institution Building. They were moved to the newly constructed National Museum Building (now the Arts and Industries Building) in 1881.
From the early 1880s until 1897, various departments and divisions of the United States National Museum (USNM) were responsible for zoological, botanical, geological, and anthropological collections. As a result of a major reorganization of the USNM in 1897, three Departments were created: Biology, Geology, and Anthropology, to administer the Museum's collections and research in those areas. Various curatorial divisions were established under each department. The collections were moved to a new building (now the National Museum of Natural History) devoted to natural history and anthropology in 1911. In 1947, the Department of Biology was abolished and replaced with two new Departments: Zoology and Botany.
In 1957, the USNM created two administrative subdivisions: the Museum of Natural History (MNH) and the Museum of History and Technology. The USNM was eliminated as an administrative entity in 1967, and MNH became a separate administrative unit. During 1963-1964, a major reorganization of the curatorial departments in MNH took place. The Departments of Entomology, Invertebrate Zoology, and Vertebrate Zoology were created to replace the old Department of Zoology; and the Departments of Mineral Sciences and Paleobiology were established in place of the old Department of Geology. Separate departments of Anthropology and Botany were maintained. In 1969, the Museum was renamed the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH).
Directors of NMNH (before 1969, MNH) have included Remington Kellogg, Acting Director, 1957-1958; Albert C. Smith, 1958-1962; T.D. Stewart, 1962-1966; Richard S. Cowan, 1966-1973; Porter M. Kier, 1973-1979; James F. Mello, Acting Director, 1979; Richard S. Fiske, 1980-1985; James C. Tyler, Acting Director, 1985, 1988; Robert S. Hoffmann, 1985-1988; Frank Talbot, 1988-1994; Donald J. Ortner, Acting Director, 1994-1996; David L. Pawson, Acting Director, 1996; and Robert W. Fri, 1996-2001; J. Dennis O'Connor, Acting Director, 2001-2002; Cristián Samper, 2002-2007; Paul G. Risser, Acting Director, 2007-2008; and Cristián Samper, 2008-2012.
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Agency History. Record 217898