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, President 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 today serves 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).
Today, the Smithsonian Institution’s 19 museums and galleries (D.C. has 17), nine research centers, and the National Zoological Park comprise the world’s largest museum complex. Millions of people visit the Smithsonians annually—more than 22 million visitors toured the museums in 2019. The Smithsonian’s collection of 155 million objects spans the entire world and all 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 of the world.
Individually, each museum is a powerhouse in its own field. The National Museum of Natural History, with 6 million annual visitors, is the most visited museum in the world. The National Air and Space Museum maintains the world’s largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft. The Freer and Sackler Galleries house the largest Asian art research library in the United States. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the nation’s first-established 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, go to www.si.edu, which helps you get to their individual home pages.
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.