District of Columbia: Smithsonian Institution Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Smithsonian Institution is an independent trust instrumentality of the United States that fosters the increase and diffusion of knowledge. It is the world’s largest museum complex that includes sixteen museums and galleries, the National Zoo, and research facilities in other states and in the Republic of Panama. The Smithsonian holds more than 140 million artifacts and specimens in its trust for the American people and it is a respected research center, dedicated to public education, national service, and scholarship in the arts, science, and history.

Site Offices:

Smithsonian Institution

1000 Jefferson Drive SW

Washington, DC 20024

Visitor Information and Associates’ Reception Center

Smithsonian Institution Building, Room 153

Washington, DC 20560-0010

ph.: (202) 357-2700; TTY (202) 357-1729

Web site: www.si.edu

e-mail: info@info.si.edu

The Smithsonian Institution is a trust establishment of the United States supported by federal appropriations and private trust funds. Under its founding legislation, it is controlled by a body called “the establishment” composed of the president, the vice president, and the cabinet. Actual oversight belongs to the Board of Regents, a body composed of the vice president, the chief justice of the United States (designated its chancellor), three members each from the Senate and the House of Representatives, and nine citizen members (two residents of the District of Columbia and seven from the states), all chosen by joint resolution of Congress. A secretary, who directs the Smithsonian and carries out its policies, is elected by the regents and serves at their pleasure.

An Unexpected Bequest

On August 10, 1846, President James K. Polk signed legislation (Smithsonian Act of Organization) that established the Smithsonian Institution as the culmination of more than a decade of debate among the general public and the Congress over a peculiar bequest.

English chemist and mineralogist James Smithson died in 1829 and left a will stating that if his heir died without heirs, his estate should go to the United States to found in Washington, D.C., an establishment, to be called the Smithsonian Institution, for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” When Smithson’s sole heir died in 1835, the United States was notified of this bequest and President Andrew Jackson went to the U.S. Congress for permission to accept it. A controversy ensued between those who saw the gift as an example of British condescension, too demeaning for a sovereign state to accept, and others who wanted the bequest but could not decide on its proper use. Finally, in 1836, diplomat and lawyer Richard Rush went to London to file a claim for the Smithson estate in the British Court of Chancery. Rush won a judgment for the United States when the court awarded Smithson’s properties, valued at the equivalent of $508,318, to the United States on May 9, 1838.

Almost a decade passed, however, before the Smithsonian Institution was actually created. Initially, most Americans assumed that Smithson intended to found a university. The debate centered on what type of school it should be, but other ideas were introduced, such as an observatory, a scientific research institute, a national library, a publishing house, and a museum. The final legislation included everything but the university. The Smithsonian Institution was created as a federal quasi agency, not part of the three branches of government, managed by a self-perpetuating Board of Regents.

Development of the “Museum on the Mall”

The new agency was housed in the Smithsonian Building, a Norman “castle” designed by architect James Renwick and finished in 1855, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The first chief operating officer, or secretary, was Joseph Henry, a distinguished physicist. As secretary from 1846 to 1878, Henry focused on scientific research and established a national network of weather observers that became the National Weather Service.

The first objects donated to the institution were scientific apparatus, the gift of Robert Hare of the University of Pennsylvania, in 1848. In the same year the Smithsonian published its first book, Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge. The next year it purchased art books and works collected by regent George Perkins Marsh and initiated the International Exchange Service for trading publications between the United States and interests abroad. In 1858 the Smithsonian was designated the National Museum of the United States. During the Civil War years programs were curtailed, and a fire in the castle in 1865 destroyed the central portion of the building and many of the early collections. Henry was opposed to the use of the Smithson fund for a national library or museum, so he transferred the art collection to the Library of Congress and to the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In 1866 he transferred the Smithsonian library to the Library of Congress and had the legislation providing for copyright deposit at the Smithsonian repealed.

Baird Years

To counter concerns about the expenses required to maintain collections and exhibits, in 1858 Congress began an annual appropriation to the Smithsonian for the care of its collections and exhibits. With this annual funding, Henry’s successor, Spencer Fullerton Baird, was able to create a great national museum during his tenure (1878-1887). His goal was a comprehensive collection of all the natural resources of the continent in the United States National Museum.

He initiated this by transferring the government’s collection of artworks, historical memorabilia, and scientific specimens from the patent office building to the Smithsonian and continued by preparing all of the U.S. government’s exhibits for the international expositions, beginning with the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, which was a unique opportunity for the growing Smithsonian to publicize its expanding collections, to gain much-needed national visibility, and to provide more new displays for the Smithsonian through donations from other exhibitors. To house this expansion, Congress authorized funds to build a new National Museum building (Arts and Industries Building), which opened in 1881, two years after the Bureau of American Ethnology was added to the Smithsonian’s programs to document rapidly vanishing Native American cultures.

Turn of the Century and Two World Wars

Under the third secretary, Samuel Pierpont Langley (1889-1906), the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory was created (1890) to facilitate research on solar phenomena, the National Zoological Park was founded (1891), a “Children’s Room” opened (1901), and funding was secured for a new National Museum building. Langley’s successor, Charles Doolittle Walcott (1907-1927), paleontologist and director of the United States Geological Survey, opened a new museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) in 1910 to house natural history and art collections. During World War I, this building was closed to become headquarters for the Bureau of War Risk Insurance. In 1920, a national gallery of art (now the National Museum of American Art) was created; it was followed three years later by the Freer Gallery of Art, which maintained industrialist Charles Lang Freer’s collection of Oriental art and the works of James McNeill Whistler.

The fifth secretary, Charles Greeley Abbot (1928-1944), led the Smithsonian through the Great Depression and World War II. With assistance from the Works Progress Administration, National Zoo director William Mann installed new zoo buildings and created murals and backgrounds for animal displays. During World War II, the museum collections were moved to a warehouse in Shenandoah National Park, near Luray, Virginia, for safekeeping while the Smithsonian headquartered the Ethnogeographic Board, which provided the military with ethnographic and geographic information about little-known areas of the world, especially in the Pacific.

In the immediate post-World War II period, Alexander Wetmore, the sixth secretary (1945-1952), directed a program of modernization of exhibits, and in 1946 placed the Canal Zone Biological Area (now the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute), a research station in Panama founded in 1923 to facilitate research on the tropics, under Smithsonian control. To house its growing aeronautical collection, which included Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the National Air Museum was created (1946), and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) was inaugurated in 1952 to produce exhibits that could be displayed in locations outside the institution.

Museum Growth Spurt

Wetmore’s successor, Leonard Carmichael (1953-1964), secured the appropriation for a new museum building for the history collections, which were scattered throughout the Smithsonian complex; the building (the National Museum of American History) opened in 1964. New wings had to be added to the Natural History Building throughout the 1960’s to house additional collections. The patent office building was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1958 to house the national art collections, and a major capital improvement program was begun at the National Zoo. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory was transferred to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1955, in time to track artificial satellites after the 1957 launching of Sputnik.

The building growth continued under the eighth secretary, S. Dillon Ripley (1964-1984), who supervised a major expansion in Smithsonian programs. The new additions included the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (1965), the Anacostia Museum (1967), the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York (1968), the National Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery in the old patent office building (1968), the Archives of American Art (1970), the Renwick Gallery (1972), the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (1974), and the National Museum of African Art (1978). In the summer of 1967 the Smithsonian began one of its most popular annual events, the Festival of American Folklife, held on the National Mall, and on July 4, 1976, in celebration of the nation’s Bicentennial, opened the National Air and Space Museum, which remains the most visited of all the Smithsonian museums.

The ninth secretary, Robert McCormick Adams (1984-1993), helmed the institution during a period of renewed emphasis on research, which included establishment of the International Center in 1987 and the opening of three museums: the Sackler Gallery (1983); the National Museum of the American Indian (1989), located in both New York and Washington, D.C.; and the National Postal Museum (1990). Several new scientific research programs focused on the role of humans in the environment, including the Biodiversity Program (1986), established in conjunction with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s Man and the Biosphere Program; the Mpala Research Station (1992) in Kenya; the National Science Resource Center (1985), established in cooperation with the National Academy of Sciences; and a new observatory in Hawaii (1991).

End of the Millennium and New Beginnings

In the closing years of the twentieth century, the tenth secretary, L. Michael Heyman (1993-1999), the first nonscientist to hold the position, arrived in the middle of the controversy surrounding the Enola Gay exhibit, which war veterans and members of Congress saw as a cheap shot at those who fought World War II. Heyman revamped the exhibit, then oversaw new exhibit guidelines to prevent future problems. Heyman confronted the electronic dissemination of information with the initiation of the institution’s Web site, and directed the major celebration of the 150th anniversary of the institution in 1996. By that year the Smithsonian had over 140 million artifacts and specimens in sixteen museums. Its endowment was over $378 million, and there was a staff of over 6,700 employees and some 5,200 volunteers to carry out its programs in museums and research centers, both in Washington, D.C., and around the world. The institution’s influence and growth were expected to continue when Lawrence M. Small became the eleventh secretary in 2000.

For Further Information
  • Field, Cynthia R., Richard E. Stamm, and Heather P. Ewing. The Castle: An Illustrated History of the Smithsonian Building. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993. A good history for the general reader with beautiful illustrations.
  • Hellman, Geoffrey. The Smithsonian: Octopus on the Mall. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978. Now outdated but good historical background.
  • Hinsley, Curtis M. Savages and Scientists: The Smithsonian Institution and the Development of American Anthropology, 1846-1910. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981. Comprehensive history of the establishment and early years of the Smithsonian.
  • Oehser, Paul H. The Smithsonian Institution. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1983. Good overall history.
  • Reingold, Nathan, ed. The Papers of Joseph Henry. Vols. 1-5. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1972-1985. The official story of the Smithsonian’s earliest days by its first secretary.
  • Rivinus, Edward F., and Elizabeth M. Youssef. Spencer Baird of the Smithsonian. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992. Long overdue biography of one of the most important Smithsonian secretaries and his many accomplishments, as both museum director and scientist.
  • Rothenberg, Marc, ed. The Papers of Joseph Henry. Vols. 6-7. Washington, D.C.: 1992, 1996. The continuation of the Smithsonian’s beginnings as it struggled to define its mission.
  • Washburn, Wilcomb E. “Joseph Henry’s Conception of the Purpose of the Smithsonian Institution.” In A Cabinet of Curiosities: Five Episodes in the Evolution of American Museums. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1967. Lengthy chapter on the founding of the Smithsonian and its first secretary.
Categories: History Content