Smithsonian Gardens (SG) and the Archives of American Gardens (AAG) had a lot to celebrate in 2022. This year marks a series of institutional milestones, including the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Smithsonian Gardens in 1972, the 35th anniversary of the formation of the Archives of American Gardens in 1987, and the 30th anniversary of the donation of The Garden Club of America Collection to the Smithsonian in 1992. Through a sequence of three blog posts, you are invited to celebrate with Smithsonian Gardens as we retrace our origins and accomplishments over the past five decades. This second post explores the beginnings of the Archives of American Gardens.

While not established until 1987, the origins of the Archives of American Gardens (AAG) were rooted in the early efforts of horticulturist Director James R. Buckler to acquire books and archival materials that would support the mission of the Horticultural Services Division (precursor to Smithsonian Gardens). Buckler envisioned a museum program that, in addition to showcasing engaging, informative, and inspiring gardens, would serve as a center for horticultural research and education on par with other Smithsonian museums. Beginning in the early 1970s, a small collection of books focusing on gardens and horticulture was assembled for in-house research support. The collection was significantly expanded in 1984 when Buckler initiated the purchase of over 150 rare books from the 19th and early 20th centuries related to American landscape design. Space was secured in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building for a Horticulture Branch Library administered by Smithsonian Libraries and staffed with a part-time librarian to manage the growing collection. Through subsequent acquisitions and donations, the collection grew to approximately 10,000 items.

Reception commemorating the transfer of The Garden Club of America’s Slide Library to the Smithsonian, 1987. From left to right: James Buckler, Director of the Office of Horticulture, Kay Donahue, GCA President, Eleanor Weller, GCA Committee Chair, and Robert McCormick Adams, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
Early donations to AAG included fragile glass lantern slides and negatives from The Garden Club of America’s Slide Library (circa 1987).

Around this time, the first archival materials were donated to Smithsonian Gardens, notably the corporate records of W. Atlee Burpee & Company, a mail-order seed company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A Horticulture Branch librarian was assigned in 1987 to divide their time between providing library services and organizing the materials of the newly established but separately administered Archives of American Gardens. In 2003, Smithsonian Libraries transferred the holdings of the Horticulture Branch Library to the Botany Library at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History where the two collections were integrated. AAG’s collections remained with Smithsonian Gardens under the management of two museum specialists. In 2006, due to structural renovations of the Arts and Industries Building, the archive was moved to its current location just off the National Mall.

Today, the Archives of American Gardens provides researchers with access to over fifty collections which include images and detailed records that document thousands of historic and contemporary gardens. Since AAG’s founding, use of its collections has increased dramatically from a mere 15 written inquiries and 16,000 visits to its online records in 1991 to over 300 email inquiries and a quarter million visits to its online images in 2021. AAG’s collections provide an invaluable resource for professionals and novices alike to use in their pursuit of studying or simply appreciating gardens and garden design. In their 35 years to date, the collections at AAG helped develop the museum program that former Secretary S. Dillon Ripley and former Director Buckler envisioned in the early 1970s and support Smithsonian Gardens’ ongoing mission to engage, inform, and inspire.