The Smithsonian Institution: A History

The Smithsonian Institution, in Washington DC, is the most famous museum in the world, and carries out research and study in all areas of art and science. Millions of tourists visit its museums each year. But the Smithsonian Institution was not founded by an American–it was started by an obscure British scientist who had never visited the United States.


The Smithsonian Castle, on the Mall in DC

In 1829, a British chemist and minerologist named James Smithson, a member of the Royal Society of London, died while in Genoa, Italy. The illegitimate son of the Lord of Northumberland and a wealthy widow, Smithson used his family fortune to travel around Europe, writing a total of 27 scientific papers on topics ranging from marine fossils to the chemistry of snake venom. (The mineral “smithsonite” is named after him.) He was inducted into the Royal Society in 1787.

When he died, at age 64, he had no children or heirs, so he left an unusual provision in his will: he left everything to his sole nephew, with the notation that if his nephew died without children, then “I then bequeath the whole of my property . . . to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

To this day, no one knows why Smithson decided to give his fortune to found a scientific institute in a then-obscure country that he had never visited. The United States had just fought two wars with the British Empire, the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and was still considered an enemy country. Some have speculated that Smithson was trying to symbolically get back at the tight-laced British society that had rejected him because of his illegitimacy, by helping out its enemy. Others have concluded that he admired the United States for its democratic ideals.

The British courts, after determining that there were no heirs or other claimants to the fortune, informed US President Andrew Jackson of the bequest in 1835.  It sparked a political debate. A faction in Congress, led by Senators John Calhoun and William Preston (who were anti-federalists and fierce Southern advocates of “states rights”) argued that the Federal Government had no authority to establish any national institutions. But in July 1836 Congress voted to accept the bequest and use it to establish the Smithsonian Institution. Richard Rush was appointed by Congress to travel to England and file the claim for the bequest in the Court of Chancery. Smithson’s fortune arrived in the US in 1838, in the form of eleven boxes full of British gold coins. These were melted down and minted into American money, worth, in total, $562,483.84–an amount that was almost one-sixtieth of the entire US Government budget at the time.

Next, there was more debate–what exactly would be the best way to carry out “the increase and diffusion of knowledge”? There was one faction in Congress who wanted to use the money to establish a National University. Others wanted to establish a National Library to supplement the Library of Congress (which was originally for the use of Congress only and was not open to the public). Other suggestions included an astronomical observatory, a scientific publishing house, and a scientific research institute. Eventually, it was decided to make the Smithsonian Institution multi-role, with departments to carry out observation and research, and a National Museum to exhibit for the public.

In 1846, under President James Polk, a trust was established to run the Institution, with a Board of Regents and a Secretary. The first Smithsonian Secretary was Joseph Henry, a physics professor at the College of New Jersey. In 1847, construction was begun on the National Mall for the Smithsonian Building, which housed the original US National Museum. Built of red sandstone, it is now known as the Smithsonian Castle, serves as the administration building for the Smithsonian, and houses the stone sarcophagus of James Smithson. (Smithson had originally been buried in a small cemetery in England, but in 1904, when that gravesite was destroyed by a stone quarry, the Institute moved the remains to the US and housed them inside the Smithsonian building.)

Most of the Smithsonian’s early collections were donations, including scientific equipment from university professors and artwork and books donated by Regents. A collection of historical objects held by the US Patent Office was also transferred to the Smithsonian. These were all housed and displayed in the Castle. In 1879, construction was begun on a new building, next door to the Castle, to hold the growing collection, and the new National Museum opened in 1881. Today it is the Arts and Industries Building. Ten years later the National Zoo was opened on a tract of land in the Rock Creek section of Washington DC, and in 1911 the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History was opened on the Mall, across from the Castle. An art museum, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum, followed in 1920.

The Smithsonian expanded enormously over the next decades. The National Air Museum was established in 1946. In 1960 the American History Museum opened, and the Natural History Museum building was expanded. As the Space Age began, a collection of rockets was exhibited in the open on the Mall, and in 1976 the new Air and Space Museum was opened. A number of art galleries were added on the Mall. The Museum of the American Indian was chartered in 1989 and opened in 2004, the Udvar-Hazy expansion to the Air and Space Museum at Dulles Airport opened in 2003, and construction of the Museum of African-American History was begun in 2013.

Today the Smithsonian Institution runs 19 museums, the National Zoo, and 9 scientific research institutes. Its collections hold over 137 million different objects. The Smithsonian’s museums receive over 30 million visitors per year.


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Forgotten mysteries, oddities and unknown stories from history, nature and science.