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Smithsonian Institution

Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian Institution (/smɪθˈsoʊniən/ smith-SOH-nee-ən), also known simply as the Smithsonian, is a group of museums and research centers administered by the Government of the United States. It was founded on August 10, 1846, "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge".[2] The institution is named after its founding donor, British scientist James Smithson.[3] It was originally organized as the "United States National Museum", but that name ceased to exist as an administrative entity in 1967.[4]

Termed "the nation's attic"[5] for its eclectic holdings of 154 million items,[3] the Institution's 19 museums, 21 libraries, nine research centers, and zoo include historical and architectural landmarks, mostly located in the District of Columbia.[6] Additional facilities are located in Arizona, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York City, Pittsburgh, Texas, Virginia, and Panama. More than 200 institutions and museums in 45 states,[1] Puerto Rico, and Panama are Smithsonian Affiliates.[7][8]

The Institution's 30 million annual visitors[9] are admitted without charge. Its annual budget is around $1.2 billion, with two-thirds coming from annual federal appropriations.[10] Other funding comes from the Institution's endowment, private and corporate contributions, membership dues, and earned retail, concession, and licensing revenue.[3] Institution publications include Smithsonian and Air & Space magazines.

Smithsonian Institution
Flag of the Smithsonian Institution.svg
Flag of the Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian Institution is located in Central Washington, D.C.
Smithsonian Institution
Location within Central Washington, D.C.
Smithsonian Institution is located in the United States
Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian Institution (the United States)
EstablishedAugust 10, 1846
LocationWashington, D.C.; Chantilly, Virginia; New York City
Coordinates38°53′20″N 77°01′34″W [97]
DirectorLonnie Bunch, Secretary of the Smithsonian
Websitewww.si.edu [98]


The "Castle" (1847), the Institution's first building, which remains its headquarters

The "Castle" (1847), the Institution's first building, which remains its headquarters

The British scientist James Smithson (1765–1829) left most of his wealth to his nephew Henry James Hungerford. When Hungerford died childless in 1835,[11] the estate passed "to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men", in accordance with Smithson's will.[12] Congress officially accepted the legacy bequeathed to the nation, and pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust on July 1, 1836.[13] The American diplomat Richard Rush was dispatched to England by President Andrew Jackson to collect the bequest. Rush returned in August 1838 with 105 sacks containing 104,960 gold sovereigns (about $500,000 at the time, which is equivalent to $11,764,000 in 2018).[14][15]

Once the money was in hand, eight years of Congressional haggling ensued over how to interpret Smithson's rather vague mandate "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge."[13][15] Unfortunately, the money was invested by the US Treasury in bonds issued by the state of Arkansas, which soon defaulted. After heated debate, Massachusetts Representative (and ex-President) John Quincy Adams persuaded Congress to restore the lost funds with interest[16] and, despite designs on the money for other purposes, convinced his colleagues to preserve it for an institution of science and learning.[17] Finally, on August 10, 1846, President James K. Polk signed the legislation that established the Smithsonian Institution as a trust instrumentality of the United States, to be administered by a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian.[13][18]


Though the Smithsonian's first Secretary, Joseph Henry, wanted the Institution to be a center for scientific research,[19] it also became the depository for various Washington and U.S. government collections.[20] The United States Exploring Expedition by the U.S. Navy circumnavigated the globe between 1838 and 1842.[21] The voyage amassed thousands of animal specimens, an herbarium of 50,000 plant specimens, and diverse shells and minerals, tropical birds, jars of seawater, and ethnographic artifacts from the South Pacific Ocean.[21] These specimens and artifacts became part of the Smithsonian collections,[22] as did those collected by several military and civilian surveys of the American West, including the Mexican Boundary Survey and Pacific Railroad Surveys, which assembled many Native American artifacts and natural history specimens.[23]

In 1846, the regents developed a plan for weather observation; in 1847, money was appropriated for meteorological research.[24] The Institution became a magnet for young scientists from 1857 to 1866, who formed a group called the Megatherium Club.[25] The Smithsonian played a critical role as the U.S. partner institution in early bilateral scientific exchanges with the Academy of Sciences of Cuba.[26]

Museums and buildings

Construction began on the Smithsonian Institution Building ("the Castle") in 1849. Designed by architect James Renwick Jr., its interiors were completed by general contractor Gilbert Cameron. The building opened in 1855.[27]

The Smithsonian's first expansion came with construction of the Arts and Industries Building in 1881. Congress had promised to build a new structure for the museum if the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition generated enough income. It did, and the building was designed by architects Adolf Cluss and Paul Schulze, based on original plans developed by Major General Montgomery C. Meigs of the United States Army Corps of Engineers. It opened in 1881.[28]

The National Zoological Park opened in 1889 to accommodate the Smithsonian's Department of Living Animals.[29] The park was designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.[29]

The National Museum of Natural History opened in June 1911 to similarly accommodate the Smithsonian's United States National Museum, which had previously been housed in the Castle and then the Arts and Industries Building.[30] This structure was designed by the D.C. architectural firm of Hornblower & Marshall.[31]

When Detroit philanthropist Charles Lang Freer donated his private collection to the Smithsonian and funds to build the museum to hold it (which was named the Freer Gallery), it was among the Smithsonian's first major donations from a private individual.[32] The gallery opened in 1923.[33]

More than 40 years would pass before the next museum, the Museum of History and Technology (renamed the National Museum of American History in 1980), opened in 1964. It was designed by the world-renowned firm of McKim, Mead & White.[34] The Anacostia Community Museum, an "experimental store-front" museum created at the initiative of Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, opened in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C., in 1967.[35][36][37] That same year, the Smithsonian signed an agreement to take over the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration (now the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum).[38] The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum opened in the Old Patent Office Building (built in 1867) on October 7, 1968.[39] The reuse of an older building continued with the opening of the Renwick Gallery in 1972 in the 1874 Renwick-designed art gallery originally built by local philanthropist William Wilson Corcoran to house the Corcoran Gallery of Art.[40]

The first new museum building to open since the National Museum of Natural History was the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which opened in 1974.[41] The National Air and Space Museum, the Smithsonian's largest in terms of floor space, opened in June 1976.[42]

Eleven years later, the National Museum of African Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery opened in a new, joint, underground museum between the Freer Gallery and the Smithsonian Castle.[43][44][45] Reuse of another old building came in 1993 with the opening of the National Postal Museum in the 1904 former City Post Office building, a few city blocks from the Mall.[46]

In 2004, the Smithsonian opened the National Museum of the American Indian in a new building near the United States Capitol.[47] Twelve years later almost to the day, in 2016, the latest museum opened: the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in a new building near the Washington Monument.[48]

Capital campaigns

In 2011, the Smithsonian undertook its first-ever capital fundraising campaign.[49] The $1.5 billion effort raised $1 billion at the three-year mark. Smithsonian officials made the campaign public in October 2014 in an effort to raise the remaining $500 million. More than 60,000 individuals and organizations donated money to the campaign by the time it went public.[50] This included 192 gifts of at least $1 million.[50] Members of the boards of directors of various Smithsonian museums donated $372 million.[50] The Smithsonian said that funds raised would go toward completion of the National Museum of African American History and Culture building, and renovations of the National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History, and the Renwick Gallery.[50] A smaller amount of funds would go to educational initiatives and digitization of collections.[50] As of September 2017, the Smithsonian claimed to have raised $1.79 billion, with three months left in the formal campaign calendar.[51]

Separately from the major capital campaign, the Smithsonian has begun fundraising through Kickstarter.[52] An example is a campaign to fund the preservation and maintenance of the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland for her role as Dorothy Gale in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.[53]


Aircraft on display at the National Air and Space Museum, including a Ford Trimotor and Douglas DC-3 (top and second from top)

Aircraft on display at the National Air and Space Museum, including a Ford Trimotor and Douglas DC-3 (top and second from top)

Nineteen museums and galleries, as well as the National Zoological Park, comprise the Smithsonian museums.[54] Eleven are on the National Mall, the park that runs between the Lincoln Memorial and the United States Capitol. Other museums are located elsewhere in Washington, D.C., with two more in New York City and one in Chantilly, Virginia.

The Smithsonian has close ties with 168 other museums in 39 states, Panama, and Puerto Rico.[54] These museums are known as Smithsonian Affiliated museums. Collections of artifacts are given to these museums in the form of long-term loans. The Smithsonian also has a large number of traveling exhibitions, operated through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES).[55] In 2008, 58 of these traveling exhibitions went to 510 venues across the country.[54]

The Smithsonian Institution announced in January 2015 that it is in talks to build its first permanent overseas exhibition space within London's Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.[56]


Smithsonian collections include 156 million artworks, artifacts, and specimens. The National Museum of Natural History houses 145 million of these specimens and artifacts, which are mostly animals preserved in Formaldehyde. The Collections Search Center has 9.9 million digital records available online. The Smithsonian Institution Libraries hold 2 million library volumes. Smithsonian Archives hold 156,830 cubic feet of archival material.[57][58]

The Smithsonian Institution has many categories of displays that can be visited at the museums. In 1912, First Lady Helen Herron Taft donated her inauguration gown to the museum to begin the First Ladies' Gown display,[59] one of the Smithsonian's most popular exhibits.[60] The museum displays treasures such as the Star-Spangled Banner, the stove pipe hat that was worn by President Lincoln, the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard Of Oz, and the original Teddy Bear that was named after President Theodore Roosevelt.[61] In 2016, the Smithsonian's Air & Space museum curators restored the large model Enterprise from the original Star Trek TV series.[62]

Research centers and programs

The following is a list of Smithsonian research centers, with their affiliated museum in parentheses:

  • Archives of American Art

  • California State Railroad Museum[63]

  • Carrie Bow Marine Field Station (Natural History Museum)

  • Center for Earth and Planetary Studies (Air and Space Museum)

  • Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

  • Marine Station at Fort Pierce (Natural History Museum)

  • Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (National Zoo)

  • Museum Conservation Institute

  • Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

  • Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the associated Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

  • Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (National Zoo)

  • Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

  • Smithsonian Institution Archives[64]

  • Smithsonian Libraries

  • Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press

  • Smithsonian Latino Center[65]

  • Smithsonian Provenance Research Initiative (SPRI)[66]

  • Smithsonian Science Education Center[67]

  • Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (Panamá)

  • Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Also of note is the Smithsonian Museum Support Center (MSC), located in Silver Hill, Maryland (Suitland), which is the principal off-site conservation and collections facility for multiple Smithsonian museums, primarily the National Museum of Natural History. The MSC was dedicated in May 1983.[68] The MSC covers 4.5 acres (1.8 ha) of land, with over 500,000 square feet (46,000 m2) of space, making it one of the largest set of structures in the Smithsonian. It has over 12 miles (19 km) of cabinets, and more than 31 million objects.

Smithsonian Latino Center

In 1997, the Smithsonian Latino Center was created as a way to recognize Latinos across the Smithsonian Institution. The primary purpose of the center is to place Latino contributions to the arts, history, science, and national culture across the Smithsonian's museums and research centers.[69]

The center is a division of the Smithsonian Institution.[70] As of May 2016, the center is run by an executive director, Eduardo Díaz.[71]


At the time of its creation, the Smithsonian Institution had other entities dedicated to other minority groups: National Museum of the American Indian, Freer-Sackler Gallery for Asian Arts and Culture, African Art Museum, and the National Museum of African-American Heritage and Culture.[72]

The opening of the center was prompted, in part, by the publishing of a report called "Willful Neglect: The Smithsonian and U.S. Latinos".[72]

According to documents obtained by The Washington Post, when former Latino Center executive director Pilar O'Leary first took the job, the center faced employees who had "serious performance issues". No performance plans existed for the staff and unfulfilled financial obligations to sponsors existed. The website's quality was poor, and the center did not have a public affairs manager, a programs director, adequate human resources support, or cohesive mission statement.[72]

After difficult times in the first few years, the center improved. According to the Smithsonian, the center "support[s] scholarly research, exhibitions, public and educational programs, web-based content and virtual platforms, and collections and archives. [It] also manage[s] leadership and professional development programs for Latino youth, emerging scholars and museum professionals."[69] Today, the website features a high-tech virtual museum.[73]

Young Ambassadors Program

The Smithsonian Latino Center's Young Ambassadors Program (YAP) is a program within the Latino Center that reaches out to Latino high school students with the goal of encouraging them to become leaders in arts, sciences, and the humanities.[74]

Students selected for the program travel to Washington, D.C. for an "enrichment seminar" that lasts approximately five days. Afterwards, students return to their communities to serve in a paid, one-month internship.[70]

Pilar O'Leary launched the program when she served as executive director of the Smithsonian Latino Center.[75] According to the Latino Center, O'Leary told the press in 2007: "Our goal is to help our Young Ambassadors become the next generation of leaders in the arts and culture fields. This program encourages students to be proud of their roots and learn more about their cultural heritage to inspire them to educate the public in their own communities about how Latinos are enriching America's cultural fabric."[70]


The Institution publishes Smithsonian magazine monthly and Air & Space magazine bimonthly. Smithsonian was the result of Secretary of the Smithsonian S. Dillon Ripley asking the retired editor of Life magazine Edward K. Thompson to produce a magazine "about things in which the Smithsonian Institution is interested, might be interested or ought to be interested."[76] Another Secretary of the Smithsonian, Walter Boyne, founded Air & Space.[77][78]


The Smithsonian makes a number of awards to acknowledge and support meritorious work.

  • The James Smithson Medal, the Smithsonian Institution's highest award, was established in 1965 and is given in recognition of exceptional contributions to art, science, history, education and technology.

  • The James Smithson Bicentennial Medal, established in 1965, is given to persons who have made distinguished contributions to the advancement of areas of interest to the Smithsonian.

  • The Hodgkins Medal, established in 1893, is awarded for important contributions to the understanding of the physical environment.

  • The Henry Medal, established in 1878, is presented to individuals in recognition of their distinguished service, achievements or contributions to the prestige and growth of the Smithsonian Institution.

  • The Langley Gold Medal is awarded for meritorious investigations in connection with the science of aerodromics and its application to aviation.[79]


The Smithsonian Castle doorway

The Smithsonian Castle doorway

The Smithsonian Institution was established as a trust instrumentality by act of Congress.[80] More than two-thirds of the Smithsonian's workforce of some 6,300 persons are employees of the federal government. The Smithsonian Office of Protection Services oversees security at the Smithsonian facilities and enforces laws and regulations for National Capital Parks together with the United States Park Police.

The President's 2011 budget proposed just under $800 million in support for the Smithsonian, slightly increased from previous years. Institution exhibits are free of charge, though in 2010 the Deficit Commission recommended admission fees.[81][82]

As approved by Congress on August 10, 1846, the legislation that created the Smithsonian Institution called for the creation of a Board of Regents to govern and administer the organization.[80] This 17-member board meets at least four times a year and includes as ex officio members the Chief Justice of the United States and the Vice President of the United States. The nominal head of the Institution is the Chancellor, an office which has traditionally been held by the Chief Justice. In September 2007, the board created the position of Chair of the Board of Regents, a position currently held by David Rubenstein.[83]

Other members of the Board of Regents are three members of the U.S. House of Representatives appointed by the Speaker of the House; three members of the Senate, appointed by the President pro tempore of the Senate; and nine citizen members, nominated by the board and approved by the Congress in a joint resolution signed by the President of the United States.[84] Regents who are senators or representatives serve for the duration of their elected terms, while citizen Regents serve a maximum of two six-year terms. Regents are compensated on a part-time basis.

The chief executive officer (CEO) of the Smithsonian is the Secretary, who is appointed by the Board of Regents. The Secretary also serves as secretary to the Board of Regents, but is not a voting member of that body. The Secretary of the Smithsonian has the privilege of the floor at the United States Senate. On September 18, 2013, Secretary G. Wayne Clough announced he would retire in October 2014. The Smithsonian Board of Regents said it asked regent John McCarter, Jr. to lead a search committee.[85] On March 10, 2014, the Smithsonian Board selected Dr. David Skorton, a physician and president of Cornell University, as the 13th Secretary of the Smithsonian. Skorton took the reins of the institution on July 1, 2015.[86] Upon Skorton's announced resignation in 2019, the Board selected Lonnie Bunch III as the 14th Secretary.[87]

Secretaries of the Smithsonian Institution

  • Joseph Henry, 1846–1878

  • Spencer Fullerton Baird, 1878–1887

  • Samuel Pierpont Langley, 1887–1906

  • Charles Doolittle Walcott, 1907–1927

  • Charles Greeley Abbot, 1928–1944

  • Alexander Wetmore, 1944–1952

  • Leonard Carmichael, 1953–1964

  • Sidney Dillon Ripley, 1964–1984

  • Robert McCormick Adams, Jr., 1984–1994

  • Ira Michael Heyman, 1994–1999

  • Lawrence M. Small, 2000–2007

  • G. Wayne Clough, 2008–2015[86]

  • David J. Skorton, 2015–2019

  • Lonnie Bunch, 2019–present


Enola Gay display

In 1995, controversy arose over the exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum with the display of the Enola Gay, the Superfortress used by the United States to drop the first atomic bomb used in World War II. The American Legion and Air Force Association believed the exhibit put forward only one side of the debate over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that it emphasized the effect on victims without discussing its use within the overall context of the war. The Smithsonian changed the exhibit, displaying the aircraft only with associated technical data and without discussion of its historic role in the war.

Censorship of "Seasons of Life and Land"

In 2003, a National Museum of Natural History exhibit, Subhankar Banerjee's Seasons of Life and Land, featuring photographs of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, was censored and moved to the basement by Smithsonian officials because they feared that its subject matter was too politically controversial.[88]

In November 2007, The Washington Post reported internal criticism has been raised regarding the institution's handling of the exhibit on the Arctic. According to documents and e-mails, the exhibit and its associated presentation were edited at high levels to add "scientific uncertainty" regarding the nature and impact of global warming on the Arctic. Acting Secretary of the Smithsonian Cristián Samper was interviewed by the Post, and claimed the exhibit was edited because it contained conclusions that went beyond what could be proven by contemporary climatology.[89] The Smithsonian is now a participant in the U.S. Global Change Research Program.[90]

The Smithsonian Institution provides access to its image collections for educational, scholarly, and nonprofit uses. Commercial uses are generally restricted unless permission is obtained. Smithsonian images fall into different copyright categories; some are protected by copyright, many are subject to license agreements or other contractual conditions, and some fall into the public domain, such as those prepared by Smithsonian employees as part of their official duties. The Smithsonian's terms of use for its digital content, including images, are set forth on the Smithsonian Web site.[91][92]

In April 2006, the institution entered into an agreement of "first refusal" rights for its vast silent and public domain film archives with Showtime Networks, mainly for use on the Smithsonian Channel, a network created from this deal. Critics contend this agreement effectively gives Showtime control over the film archives, as it requires filmmakers to obtain permission from the network to use extensive amounts of film footage from the Smithsonian archives.[93]

See also

  • List of aircraft in the Smithsonian Institution

  • Smithsonian Ocean Portal

  • Smithsonian Theaters

  • 3773 Smithsonian


Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgStates without Smithsonian Affiliates: Idaho, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, Utah.
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Citation Linkweb.archive.org"About Us". Smithsonian. Smithsonian Institution. Archived from the original on March 7, 2017. Retrieved March 8, 2017.
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Citation Linkweb.archive.org"Smithsonian History > National Museum of American History". Smithsonian Institution. Archived from the original on June 23, 2013. Retrieved June 21, 2013.
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Citation Linkwww.smithsonianmag.comKernan, Michael (November 1997). "A Real Nation's Attic". Smithsonian. Smithsonian Institution.
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgLeaf, Jesse (March 13, 2007). The Everything Family Guide To Washington D.C.: All the Best Hotels, Restaurants, Sites, and Attractions. Everything Books. ISBN 1-4405-2411-4.:57
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgKurin, Richard (October 29, 2013). The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects Deluxe. Penguin. ISBN 978-0-698-15520-6.
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Citation Linksiris-sihistory.si.eduGoode, George Brown (1897). The Smithsonian Institution, 1846–1896, The History of Its First Half Century. Washington, D.C.: De Vinne Press. p. 25. Archived from the original on December 12, 2012.
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Citation Linkweb.archive.org"James Smithson – Founder of the Smithsonian, Last Will and Testament". Smithsonian Scrapbook: Letters, Diaries and Photographs from the Smithsonian Archives. Smithsonian Institution. Archived from the original on August 24, 2011. Retrieved October 4, 2012.
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Citation Linknewsdesk.si.edu"Founding of the Smithsonian Institution". Fact Sheets, Smithsonian Newsdesk. Smithsonian Institution. Archived from the original on September 1, 2012. Retrieved October 4, 2012.
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgHeather Ewing, The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian, pp. 323–24, 330, 409. Ewing notes that it would be the equivalent of over $10 million today, using one index, but using a per-capita share of GDP, it would be the equivalent of over $220 million. It was close to the total of Harvard University's endowment at that point, which had accumulated for nearly 200 years by the 1830s and was not the result of a single gift, as Smithson's was.
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Citation Linkarchive.orgOttesen, Carole (2011). A Guide to Smithsonian Gardens. Smithsonian Books. p. 13. ISBN 978-1-58834-300-0.
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgOrosz, Joel J. (June 28, 2002). Curators and Culture: The Museum Movement in America, 1740-1870. University of Alabama Press. ISBN 978-0-8173-1204-6.:157
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