Curious visitors, social media followers, and donors often ask which U.S. presidents have visited the museum. Inspired by the upcoming presidential inauguration, we looked into it.
Five U.S. presidents have visited the museum. President Lyndon Johnson was invited to dedicate the new Museum of History and Technology in 1964 and was said to stop by on occasion after that. Another Texas president, George W. Bush, was invited to preside over the museum's re-dedication in 2008 when we reopened to the public after a two-year renovation. He did so and swore in five new American citizens. President Clinton stood in front of the Star-Spangled Banner on July 13, 1998, to kickoff the first Save America’s Treasures tour. When the museum opened a temporary exhibition marking the bicentennial of President Lincoln's birth, President Barack Obama was able to privately visit the gallery.
President Richard Nixon was here for his 1973 inaugural ball. The event is well documented in the Smithsonian Archives, including a somewhat embarrassing incident involving chickens.
The chickens got tickets to the ball because they had lived in the museum since 1969 to, according to the Smithsonian Collections Blog, "to give a sense of realism to the American farm life exhibit." According to the Smithsonian Archives, "One of these chickens escaped during President Nixon's Inaugural Ball at the museum on January 20, 1973. Eighth Secretary S. Dillon Ripley captured the escaped chicken while it was bothering a female guest." The Collections Blog adds more detail: "While guests danced the night away, a female participant became quite ruffled when a chicken flew into her one thousand dollar VIP box and began to assault her." Ripley, it transpires, was an ornithologist, so the chicken was in good hands. We assume the female guest recovered.
Your next question is probably, "What about the First Ladies?"
Since opening in 1964, every First Lady has visited the museum to donate her inaugural gown to the First Ladies Collection. Who does that include? Take a look at our First Ladies timeline. Helen "Nellie" Taft was the first First Lady to donate her inaugural gown to the Smithsonian (it's a white silk chiffon number with floral embroideries in metallic thread and trimmed with rhinestones and beads) but that was before this museum's time.
Though he wouldn't have gotten the chance to visit this building, Theodore Roosevelt offered the National Museum (a predecessor of this museum) his childhood natural history cabinet, which he had begun at age nine and "playfully called the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History," according to the recently-published The Smithsonian Book of Presidential Trivia. It included nearly 250 carefully labeled specimens of birds and mammals. Roosevelt was in his twenties at the time of the donation and he continued to donate as president. This earthenware whistle from Panama, which he visited in 1906, was donated by then President Theodore Roosevelt.
But that's just this museum. Did you know that President Ronald Reagan held a ball with the elephant at the National Museum of Natural History in 1981?
President James Garfield was the first president to celebrate his ianuguration in a Smithsonian building. His March 4, 1881, inaugural ball took place in the Arts and Industries Building (then known as the National Mueum Building), the first event it hosted before opening to the public.
Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department. For more inauguration history, see her blog post exploring inauguration history.