The National Air Museum (NAM) was created as a separate bureau of the Smithsonian Institution by Act of Congress in 1946. Twenty years later its name was changed to the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) as part of the Congressional Act authorizing construction of a separate building to house its collections.
Previous to 1946 the NASM collections were under the custodial care of the Department of Anthropology, Division of Mechanical Technology, 1887-1919, and the Department of Arts and Industries, Division of Mechanical Technology, 1919-1931, then the Division of Engineering, 1931-1946.
With the creation of NAM, Carl W. Mitman, head curator of the Division of Engineering, became Assistant to the Secretary for NAM. Mitman retired from the Smithsonian in 1952 and Philip S. Hopkins was appointed as the Museum's first director in 1958. Hopkins was succeeded by S. Paul Johnson, 1964-1969, Frank A. Taylor, acting director, 1969-1971, and Michael Collins, 1971 to the present.
Though the first accessioned artifact in the collection was the John F. Stringfellow engine in 1889, the NASM collection dates back to the close of the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia when the Smithsonian received a group of kites from the Chinese Imperial Commission.