After the success of the London Crystal Palace Exposition of 1851, expositions became increasingly popular in both the United States and in Europe. However, serious participation by the federal government did not commence until the International Exposition in Philadelphia, known as the Centennial Exposition of 1876. Government involvement in expositions was authorized by an Act of Congress. The purpose of the government exhibits was generally to set forth the nature of American institutions and various aspects of the life of the citizenry, and to illustrate the nation's military power. The act usually created a Government Board of Management or Government Exhibit Board, which would be composed of representatives from the executive departments, the Smithsonian, and the United States Fish Commission. This board was in charge of appropriations, organization, preparation, installation, and management of government exhibits.
The Smithsonian representative on the Board was in charge of the Institution's exhibit and might be asked to act in some capacity for the Board as well. Spencer F. Baird, George Brown Goode, Frederick W. True, and William deC. Ravenel served as representatives of the Institution from 1876 to 1916. Other Smithsonian staff members produced exhibits in their respective fields. They included Otis T. Mason, George P. Merrill, William H. Holmes, Leonhard Stejneger, and others.
During this period it was customary to differentiate between the exhibits prepared by the Smithsonian Institution proper--the "parent institution," as it was called--and those prepared by the United States National Museum. An effort was made to represent the work of the entire organization in these exhibits. However, the work of the main departments of the National Museum, Geology, Anthropology (including the Bureau of American Ethnology), and Biology lent itself to more vivid illustration; and it is not surprising that in practice the exhibits emphasized their work.
The Institution staff frequently found itself coping with gains and losses arising from participation in expositions. The chief benefit, and it was considerable, was that the Smithsonian received many accessions, especially from foreign exhibitors. It was also able to purchase specimens from government exposition appropriations, which it could add to the National Museum's collection when an exposition ended. Finally, the Institution was pleased to have the publicity which the expositions generated. Despite these undoubted benefits, there were decided disadvantages as well. Often Congress would not make an appropriation for an exposition until very near the time it was to open, which meant the Smithsonian staff had to create exhibits at short notice. Because of this circumstance, it was sometimes necessary to remove exhibit materials from the National Museum in an effort to prepare a creditable production. Moreover, staff members often had to be diverted from their regular duties to help make necessary preparations. This had the effect of removing Museum staff members from their duties in Washington for assignments at an exposition, which obliged those removed to delay work begun in the Museum. Despite these difficulties, the expositions were useful to the Smithsonian, which made effective use of them from 1876 until about World War I.