British scientist James Smithson died on June 27, 1829. He left an endowment “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian InstitutionExternal, an “establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Some regarded his bequest as a trifle eccentric, considering Smithson had neither traveled to nor corresponded with anyone in America.
A fellow of the venerable Royal Society of London from the age of twenty-two, Smithson published numerous scientific papers on mineralogy, geology, and chemistry. He proved that zinc carbonates were true carbonate minerals, not zinc oxides; one calamine (a type of zinc carbonate) was renamed “smithsonite” posthumously in his honor.
An act of Congress signed by President James K. Polk on August 10, 1846, established the Smithsonian Institution. After considering a series of recommendations, which included the creation of a national university, a public library, or an astronomical observatory, Congress agreed that the $508,318 bequest would support the creation of a museum, a library, and a program of research, publication, educational outreach, and collection in the natural and applied sciences, arts, and history.
The collections and libraries of the Smithsonian have continued to grow through donations and purchases. Today, the Institution comprises 19 museums, 144 affiliate museums, and 9 research centers throughout the United States and the world. The original Smithsonian Institution Building is popularly known as the Castle. Visitors to Washington, D.C., can frequent a variety of Smithsonian facilities including the National Museum of Natural History External, which houses the natural science collections, the National Zoo & Conservation Biology InstituteExternal, the National Museum of the American Indian External, and the National Portrait GalleryExternal. Opened in 2016, The National Museum of African American History and Culture External is the latest addition to the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of museums.
The National Air & Space Museum External, which exhibits marvels of aviation history such as the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer and Charles Lindbergh’s airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, has the distinction of being the most visited museum in the world.
- Visit the Smithsonian Institution website External to learn more about this American treasure trove and to find a complete listing of all Smithsonian museums and research centers. To see featured items from the Smithsonian collections search the CollectionsExternal by Object Groups.
- Search on Smithsonian in the Horydczak Collection for more photographs of the museum buildings and exhibits.
- A search on Smithsonian Institution in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 yields a wide variety of historical documents relating to the institution including resolutions and statutes on its establishment and funding. Read the blog post “Establishing the Smithsonian Institution” for additional information on legal aspects governing the Smithsonian.
- A portrait statue of Joseph Henry, a physicist and first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, is displayed in the Main Reading Room in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Under his administration, the 40,000-volume collection of the Smithsonian’s library was transferred to the Library of Congress.
- A search on Smithsonian Institution in Chronicling America yields a wealth of newspaper articles on the establishment and development of the Smithsonian and on the building of the Smithsonian Castle, the Arts and Industries Building, and the National Museum of Natural History – the first three Smithsonian buildings.
- In 1877 Frederick Douglass delivered an address entitled “Lecture on Our National Capital.” That address was reprinted in 1978 by the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Neighborhood Museum. Search on Frederick Douglass in the collection The Capital and the Bay: Narratives of Washington and the Chesapeake Bay Region, 1600-1925 to locate that item as well as Douglass’ autobiography.
- Alexander Graham Bell was elected a regent of the Smithsonian Institution in 1898. Search on the keywords Smithsonian or museum in the collection Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress to find a number of items related to Bell’s involvement with the institution. See, for example, the “Proceedings of [the] Regents Meeting” held in January 1892, which highlighted Bell’s donation to the Smithsonian’s Astrophysical Observatory.
- Search on the term museum in the Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606 to 1827 to learn more about Jefferson’s concern for the preservation of artifacts both cultural and natural. See, for example, Jefferson’s copy of the 1786 pamphlet by Mademoiselle Leroux du Cloteau, Plan for a Women’s Museum or Jefferson’s 1825 letter to General William Clark, requesting a donation to the new University of Virginia, “not of money…but for chrystals minerals small Indian worthy and other curiosities which might be easily transported and preserved.”
- Search on museum in the pictorial collections to see a wide variety of additional images.