The United States National Museum had its origins in a scientific organization founded in Washington in 1841 under the name of the National Institute. Although the National Institute was a private organization it was chosen by the federal government as the custodian of minerals received from the James Smithson estate in 1838 and of the collections amassed by the United States Exploring Expedition between 1838 and 1842. The collections were housed in the Patent Office, and funds for their care were provided by the government. In 1858, these collections were transferred to the Smithsonian and were added to specimens already in the possession of the Institution, and federal funds were appropriated for their care.
It is difficult to say with certainty when the U. S. National Museum was officially established but by 1858 a National Museum was reality. The term National Museum was commonly used by the 1860s.
Spencer F. Baird came to the Smithsonian in 1850 as Assistant Secretary in charge of publications and museum. He was in effect, the first director of the U. S. National Museum. In 1875, George Brown Goode was appointed Assistant Curator of the National Museum. By 1878, when Baird became Secretary, Goode was named Curator of the Museum and was virtually in charge of its operation. In 1880 his title was changed to Assistant Director of the U. S. National Museum (the Secretary was officially the Director) and in 1886 to Assistant Secretary in charge of the U. S. National Museum. Goode died in 1896, and his position was filled on an interim basis by Charles D. Walcott until Richard Rathbun was appointed to the position in 1898. After Rathbun's death in 1918, William de C. Ravenel assumed the administrative duties as Administrative Assistant to the Secretary in charge of the U. S. National Museum.
In 1925, Alexander Wetmore was appointed Assistant Secretary, with general supervision over the U. S. National Museum (USNM), the National Gallery of Art, and the National Zoological Park. Ravenel remained Administrative Assistant to the Secretary as well as Director of the Department of Arts and Industries. As a result of Wetmore's appointment, Ravenel was able to devote more time to the Department of Arts and Industries, the forerunner of the present National Museum of History and Technology.
In 1945, Wetmore became Secretary while retaining his duties as Director of the U. S. National Museum.
In 1948, Arthur Remington Kellogg was appointed Director. In 1955 Frank A. Taylor, formerly Head Curator of the Department of Engineering and Industries became Assistant Director of USNM. In 1957, the U. S. National Museum created two administrative subdivisions: the Museum of Natural History (Arthur Remington Kellogg, Acting Director) and the Museum of History and Technology (Frank A. Taylor, Director). In 1958, Albert C. Smith was appointed Director of the Museum of Natural History. In 1962, Kellogg retired and was replaced as Director of USNM by Frank A. Taylor. In the same year, Thomas Dale Stewart replaced Smith as Director of the Museum of Natural History. Richard Sumner Cowan replaced Stewart in 1966, and Cowan was in turn, replaced by Porter M. Kier in 1973.
By 1967 the U. S. National Museum as an administrative entity was eliminated, with the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of History and Technology existing as separate administrative units. In 1969, the names of the museums were changed to the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of History and Technology respectively.
The Director of the National Museum of Natural History reports administratively to the Assistant Secretary for Science. Prior to 1966 he reported to the Director of the U. S. National Museum who was responsible to the Secretary.