photo image, Holmes

William Henry Holmes (far left)
1846-1933

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Photo © 1998 Smithsonian Institution
National Museum of American Art

 

Born near Cadiz, Ohio, in the year the Smithsonian was founded, Holmes's life was intimately tied to the institution from the time he was twenty-five until his retirement in 1932 when he was 86.

He began work as an artist drawing specimens for a number of naturalists in the employ of Spencer Fullerton Baird, then Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1872 he was hired as the artist for the U.S. Geological Survey of the Territories, which explored Yellowstone before it became a National Park. Two years later Holmes's geological education and experience caused him to be named assistant geologist under Major John Wesley Powell, then director of the Geological Survey and later founder of the Bureau of American Ethnology. Holmes's years of study in the vast western landscapes, including surveys of the various canyons of the Colorado River, all worked to focus his interest on the prehistoric inhabitants of those regions, particularly the cliff dwellers, and began a life-long inquiry into the science of archaeology. In 1882, while still at the Geological Survey, Holmes was appointed honorary curator of Aboriginal Ceramics at the Smithsonian's U.S. National Museum, and in 1889 he began work at the Bureau of American Ethnology at the Smithsonian under the direction of his old boss Major Powell.

In 1884 Holmes traveled to Mexico with the photographer William H. Jackson, and with him surveyed a large part of the country. His interest in Precolumbian art and architecture was further piqued during this period, and matured with the writing of numerous scientific papers and publications which followed. He later made a series of field trips to Mexico and other countries in Central America visiting archaeological sites, making detailed and historically important sketches, panoramic drawings and notes. Holmes's work in this field, as well as his early geological writings appear in some 200 papers and books published throughout his long career.

He was appointed member of the National Academy of Science, and was the recipient of various awards for his scholarship including the Loubat prize in 1898 from Columbia University. In 1920 he returned to his original interest, art, and was named the first director of the National Gallery, where he would remain until his retirement at the age of 86. The anthropologist Walter Hough said of him, "Dr. Holmes was an eminent man of science in whom the various phases of art and science were fused to a degree seldom given in one man."