William Henry Holmes

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WILLIAM HENRY HOLMES, American, (1846-1933)

William Henry Holmes was an American anthropologist, archaeologist, geologist and teacher as well as a respected artist and museum director. Throughout his life, he had a particularly strong tie to the Smithsonian, where he held various roles from the time he was 25 to his retirement at age 86, a year before his death. His work which illustrated many of the government surveys of the American West is especially prized for the way it accurately describes the land forms of the west.


An 1870 graduate of Ohio's McNeely Normal College, Holmes began his career as a teacher, but soon crossed over into other disciplines, initially as an artist under the direction of Spencer Fullerton Baird, the Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian. He then joined the famed F.V. Hayden survey, of the Yellowstone. This experience led Holmes to the United States Geological Survey of the Territories, which named him Assistant Geologist under Major John Wesley Powell, the Geological Survey's Director and subsequent founder of the Smithsonian's Bureau of American Ethnology.
Over the next decade, Holmes' interest in the populations living in the remote western regions continued to grow. In 1875, he began studying the remains of the Anasazi culture in the San Juan River region of Utah, and developed a keen interest in prehistoric pottery and shell art.  His study of these art forms grew to include textiles as well, resulting in Holmes' reputation as an expert in ancient and existing Native American arts of the Southwest and inspiring a lifelong dedication to anthropological and archeological pursuits.
In 1882, while still at the Geological Survey, Holmes was appointed honorary curator of Aboriginal Ceramics at the Smithsonian's U.S. National Museum; in 1884, Holmes traveled to Mexico with photographer William H. Jackson, participating in one of the largest surveys of the country up to that point. The trip enhanced Holmes' interest in Pre-Columbian art and architecture, and he made several subsequent field trips to Mexico and other countries in Central America. Visiting archaeological sites, he produced intricately detailed sketches and panoramic drawings as well as journal entries and notes, many of which served as the foundation for the more than 200 papers and books published during his career.
In 1889, Holmes joined the Bureau of American Ethnology as an archeologist. For a brief time - 1894 through 1897 - he left Washington to serve as curator of anthropology at the Field Columbian Museum, but returned to the Smithsonian to become head curator of anthropology at the U.S. National Museum. From 1902 to 1909, he followed in Major Powell's footsteps, serving as the Director of the Bureau of American Ethnology, during which time he studied the Etowah Indian Mounds in Georgia, and in 1910, became chairman of the U.S. National Museum's Division of Anthropology. In 1920, Holmes was named the Smithsonian's first director of the National Gallery, a position he held until his retirement in 1932.
William Henry Holmes was an appointed member of the National Academy of Science, and was the recipient of the esteemed Loubat Prize from Columbia University.