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Our Smithsonian museums are justly famous. Collectively known as the "Smithsonian Institution," these 19 museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoological Park comprise the world's largest museum complex. Millions of people visit the Smithsonians annually -- about 30 million toured the museums in 2010. The Smithsonian's collection of nearly 137 million objects spans the entire world and all of its history, its peoples and animals (past and present), and our attempts to probe into the future.

So vast is the collection that Smithsonian museums display only about 1% or 2% of the collection's holdings at any given time. Artifacts range from a 3.5-billion-year-old fossil to inaugural gowns worn by the first ladies. Thousands of scientific expeditions sponsored by the Smithsonian have pushed into remote frontiers in the deserts, mountains, polar regions, and jungles.

Individually, each museum is a powerhouse in its own field: The National Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space Museum are the most visited of the Smithsonians -- the Air and Space Museum seeing more than eight million people, and the Natural History Museum about seven million people in 2010. The National Air and Space Museum maintains the world's largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the nation's first collection of American art and one of the largest in the world. And so on.

The Washington area lays claim to 17 Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo. (The other two museums, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian's George Gustav Heye Center, are in New York City.) Of these, 10 are on the Mall. The institution is planning to open at least one more Smithsonian museum by 2015, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, adjacent to the Washington Monument, bounded by Constitution Avenue NW, Madison Drive NW, and 14th and 15th streets NW.

The Smithson Behind the Smithsonian

You must be wondering by now: How did the Smithsonian Institution come to be? It’s rather an unlikely story, concerning the largesse of a wealthy English scientist named James Smithson (1765–1829), the illegitimate son of the duke of Northumberland. Smithson willed his vast fortune to the United States, to found “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Smithson never explained why he left this handsome bequest to the United States, a country he had never visited. Speculation is that he felt the new nation, lacking established cultural institutions, most needed his funds.

Smithson died in Genoa, Italy, in 1829. Congress accepted his gift in 1836; 2 years later, half a million dollars’ worth of gold sovereigns (a considerable sum in the 19th c.) arrived at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. For the next 8 years, Congress debated the best possible use for these funds. Finally, in 1846, James Polk signed an act into law establishing the Smithsonian Institution and authorizing a board to receive “all objects of art and of foreign and curious research, and all objects of natural history, plants, and geological and mineralogical specimens . . . for research and museum purposes.” In 1855 the first Smithsonian building opened on the Mall, not as a museum, but as the home of the Smithsonian Institution. The red sandstone structure suffered a fire and several reconstructions over the years, to serve today as the Smithsonian Information Center, known by all as “the Castle.” Smithson’s remains are interred in the Crypt located inside the north vestibule (National Mall side) of the Castle,

Today the Smithsonian Institution’s 19 museums (D.C. has 17, soon to be 18, when the National Museum of African American History and Culture opens in 2016), nine research centers, and the National Zoological Park comprise the world’s largest museum complex. Millions of people visit the Smithsonians annually—more than 30 million toured the museums in 2013. The Smithsonian’s collection of nearly 137 million objects spans the entire world and all of its history, its peoples and animals (past and present), and our attempts to probe into the future.

So vast is the collection that Smithsonian museums display only about 1% or 2% of the collection’s holdings at any given time. Artifacts range from a 3.5-billion-year-old fossil to inaugural gowns worn by the first ladies. Thousands of scientific expeditions sponsored by the Smithsonian have pushed into remote frontiers in the deserts, mountains, polar regions, and jungles.

Individually, each museum is a powerhouse in its own field. The National Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space Museum are the most visited of the Smithsonians, each welcoming at least eight million people in 2013. The National Air and Space Museum maintains the world’s largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the nation’s first collection of American art and one of the largest in the world. And so on.

To find out information about any of the Smithsonian museums, call tel 202/633-1000 or 633-5285. The Smithsonian museums also share a website, www.si.edu, which helps you get to their individual home pages.

Preview the Next Smithsonian

The National Museum of African American History and Culture won’t open until 2016 (across 14th St. from the American History Museum, at Constitution Ave., northeast of the Washington Monument). In the meantime, tour the American History Museum’s gallery dedicated to exhibits that eventually will be on display in the completed museum. On view through March 1, 2015, for example, is a fabulous exhibit, Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College, which displays six monumental canvases portraying scenes of heroic resistance to slavery and significant moments in the history of Talladega College, which opened in 1867 to serve freed slaves.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.