In 1876, after the dust from the United States’ first World’s Fair and Centennial Exposition settled on the grounds of Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, the Smithsonian Institution’s collections expanded exponentially. Sixty boxcars filled with art, mechanical inventions, and other materials from many of the 37 countries who participated in the Exposition pulled into Washington, DC as gifts for a brand new museum. Among the treasures donated were 43 traditional Chinese kites from The Chinese Imperial Centennial Commission for the Chinese exhibit. The kites eventually became part of the collections at the National Museum of Natural History, and later, 20 of the kites were transferred to the National Air and Space Museum. The kites are important not only as exceptional examples of Chinese early flight craftsmanship, but as some of the first objects accessioned into the Museum’s collection. The kites helped to establish the foundation of this world-renowned Museum. Now, 140 years after the donation, the kites are being revisited in an effort to examine, document, and conserve these objects to preserve their important cultural contributions to the Museum and the larger community.
Let’s briefly go back to the late 19th century to the grounds of Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. On this spot, from May to November in 1876, the city hosted the first World’s Fair to take place in the United States in commemoration of United States’ 100th birthday. The International Centennial Exposition, or officially, the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine, boasted nearly 10 million visitors with 37 countries participating in the event. Five main buildings housed the exhibition halls, yet over 200 structures were built on site in support of the Exposition. The exhibition halls included the Main Exhibition Building, Memorial Hall, Machinery Hall, Agricultural Hall, and Horticultural Hall.
Along with other traditional Chinese crafts including screens, scrolls, silks, lacquer, and pagodas, our kites were on display in the Main Exhibition Building and were offered to the public for sale. Documentation from the Chinese Imperial Centennial Commission states that 64 kites were sent for the exhibition. Original sales tags are still attached to a handful of the kites in the Smithsonian collection. The tags note that the kites originated from Canton, China and were on sale for $1 per pair.
Historic photographs from the collection of the Philadelphia Free Library showcase the intricate and extensive Chinese exhibition space and the detailed and majestic Main exhibition hall itself. The image second image above was a rare find, as it actually contains two of the Chinese kites in our collection at the upper left!
Following the Centennial Exposition, many countries donated their products and exhibits to the Smithsonian Institution, which had been established 30 years prior. The collection of objects donated was so substantial, that a new building was established to house and showcase them. Originally called the United States National Museum it is now known as the Arts and Industries Building.
The Chinese Imperial Centennial Commission, with the urging of then Smithsonian Secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird, donated 43 of their Chinese kites to the institution. According to documents in the National Air and Space Museum’s Curatorial Archives, the National Museum of Natural History Archives, and the extensive knowledge of Senior Curator of Aeronautics, Dr. Tom Crouch, these kites were accessioned into the collection at Natural History in 1882. In 1932, 20 of the kites were loaned to the National Air Museum (predecessor to the National Air and Space Museum) for their first exhibition, put on by Paul Garber, who was at the time associate curator in the Smithsonian Department of Engineering. They were displayed in the space fondly known as the Tin Shed, or the Aircraft Building behind the Smithsonian Castle.
Between the 1932 initial loan and exhibition to the official 1985 accession into the Museum’s collection there is little documentation regarding further exhibition or the length of time the kites were on display. However, one small article in the Smithsonian employee newsletter, Torch, from May 1966 confirms that, “The first exhibits in the aeronautical collection of the Smithsonian were Chinese kites, not airplanes. They were obtained at the close of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 from the Chinese Imperial Commission. One of these kites can still be seen on exhibit in the Air and Space Building.” It is likely that the Museum’s kites were on display for many years, a factor that would have greatly contributed to the current fragile and deteriorated condition observed during examination in the Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.
Understanding this history is key to preserving our Chinese kites. In a coming post, I will share more about the techniques and expertise required to examine and conserve the kites and preserve their historical integrity for future generations. In the meantime, here's a sneak peak video.