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The origins of the National Collections Program (NCP) date back to the creation of the Institution's first registrarial position in 1880. Since then, the programmatic activities and administrative responsibilities of collections management activities experienced significant functional changes, transitioning from an active registrarial office (1880-1971) to a central administrative office with oversight for Institution-wide stewardship issues (1976-Present).

Central Registrar | 1880-1971

Stephen C. Brown, 1892
Stephen C. Brown, 1892 (SIA 2009-4240)

As the first Registrar of the United States National Museum, appointed just before the opening of the National Museum Building in 1880, Stephen Brown served as the Institution’s transportation, storage, and records clerk. Responsible for accession documentation, legal title and provenance research, and the shipping and distribution of collections, Brown reported names of donors, accessioned collections information and descriptions for inclusion in the Smithsonian's Annual Report. Following Brown’s death and the consequent abolition of his position in 1919, the duties of the Registrar remained, reassigned to the Property Clerk in the Division of Correspondence and Documents.

Between 1919 and 1956, the Division of Correspondence and Documents carried out registrarial functions relating to the accession, examination, reporting, and distribution of collections. In 1956, the Division transitioned to the Office of the Registrar, with Helena Weiss appointed as Registrar, a position she held until her retirement in 1971. One of the first female managers of the Institution, Weiss directed the central filing system of the National Museum, responsible for accession reports and documentation, loans and exchanges, collections shipping, insurance, and customs regulations. During Weiss’ tenure, the Institution saw many famous acquisitions, including the Wright Flyer, the Hope Diamond, and the Fénykövi elephant.

Retirement Party for Helena Weiss
Retirement Party in Honor of Helena Weiss, 1971 (SIA Acc. 11-009)

During the decentralization of the National Museum, the Office of the Registrar underwent substantial administrative and functional changes. From 1971 to 1976, following the professionalization of collections management, the Office played a critical role in the development and implementation of Smithsonian policies and procedures for the acquisition, accession, deaccession, disposal, preservation, documentation, and use of collections. During this period, each Smithsonian museum established an individual registrar, ensuring the proper documentation and management of the unit’s collections. Following Weiss’ retirement, William Haynes and Richard Lytle led the office in acting capacities until internal transitions reconstituted the office with the responsibility and oversight of Smithsonian-wide collections management issues.


Central Administration | 1976 - Present

Philip Leslie
Philip Leslie

Appointed in 1976, Philip Leslie led the newly designated Office of the Registrar, establishing the Office as the primary advocate for pan-Institutional collections stewardship issues at the Smithsonian. 

The urgent need for collections storage facilities became paramount among the Smithsonian's priorities (and eventually led to the construction of the Museum Support Center) within the early years of Leslie's tenure. To adequately address these needs and justify the allocation of new resources, Smithsonian senior management recognized the need for a critical self-assessment of the Institution’s collecting goals, policies, and practices. In 1976, Secretary Dillon S. Ripley appointed a Collections Policy and Management Committee to study Smithsonian philosophy, policy, practice, and procedure regarding collections acquisition, storage, documentation, and retention.

Under Leslie’s leadership, the Committee’s recommendations led to the issuance of the Smithsonian’s first collections management policy, Office Memorandum (OM) 808, Collections Management in 1980. The precursor of Smithsonian Directive (SD) 600, Collections Management, Leslie and Marie Malaro of the Smithsonian Office of General Counsel led the development of OM 808, requiring each Smithsonian unit delegated with collecting authority to develop, implement, and adhere to an authorized, written collections management policy.

During his time as Registrar, Philip Leslie coordinated the “Great Count” inventory of Smithsonian collections from 1978 to 1983, as mandated by Congress. Promoting the development of Institution-wide information systems to improve access to the National Collections, Leslie also chaired the Registrarial Council to improve registration and physical control of Smithsonian collections. An advocate of stewardship and collections management until his retirement in 1985, the legacy of Philip Leslie endures through the proactive and collaborative activities of NCP.

Mary Case
Mary Case

Appointed as the Director in 1986, Mary Case assumed leadership of the Office of the Registrar and its newly expanded responsibilities for Institution-wide collections management. Under Case’s direction, the activities and advocacy of the Office encouraged units to implement individual collections initiatives, supporting Smithsonian-wide programs that promoted increased access to and continued accountability for collections. Focused on strengthening the philosophy and quality of collections management at the Smithsonian and the broader museum community, the goals of the Office evolved to ensure efficient access to accurate and complete collections information, appropriate physical care of collections, and increased training for Smithsonian collections personnel. In 1990, Bill Tompkins joined the Office of the Registrar as Assistant Director.

During Case's tenure, the Smithsonian Collections Management Policy was actively revised and updated with the assistance of unit collections staff. With a particular emphasis on internal controls, developing collecting plans, managing collections information, representing cultural and biological diversity within collections, collecting biological specimens, and recovering loan costs, the Office ensured documentation practices met – and established – evolving professional standards. During this period, the Office founded an annual reporting mechanism to capture annual statistics regarding collections growth and transaction activity, as well as unit compliance with established Smithsonian and unit-specific policy mandates.

The NCP team sitting together in the Haupt Garden with matching NCP baseball hats
The NCP Team, October 2022


Following Case’s retirement in 1993, the responsibilities and functions of the Office of the Registrar transferred to the newly established National Collections Program. Led by Director Bill Tompkins, NCP is proud to continue the legacy of strengthening the overall stewardship and management of Smithsonian collections by providing central leadership, policy oversight, strategic planning, and support of Institution-wide collections initiatives.

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