Exhibits at the Smithsonian have always been the responsibility of the curatorial staff. However, prior to 1948, exhibits were generally a low priority, in keeping with museological notions of the time. There was no centralized planning or support for an exhibits function beyond the efforts of individual curators. Preparators, taxidermists, and other Museum staff assembled exhibits very much on an ad hoc basis.
After the Second World War, a group of curators became interested in improving museum exhibits. An exhibits modernization committee was formed to study ways of improving exhibits. They hoped to combine visual effect, specimens and information in a way that would engage the viewers more actively than before, when specimens were displayed with too little or too much written text. In 1950 the Institution began to contract out design and remodeling of exhibits and exhibits areas. Curators and preparators retained supervision of the exhibits, but contractors were employed to create a more lively and finished presentation.
In 1955, by consolidating personnel and other exhibits resources, an Office of Exhibits was established, with John Anglim as its chief. The office was responsible for the design and production of permanent exhibits, as well as special and traveling exhibits in the United States National Museum and its successor museums. The office became the Office of Museum Programs in 1969 when it acquired the additional responsibility of training exhibits personnel from smaller museums around the United States.
In 1973 the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Air and Space Museum established independent exhibits laboratories to produce and design exhibits. The remaining functions (exhibits services for bureaus without exhibit staff; specialized exhibit services such as motion picture production, audio-visual services, freeze-dried taxidermy, plastics and model-restoration work; scripts for special and traveling exhibits; and exhibits training programs) are performed by the Office of Exhibits Central.