By Thad Parsons

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 & diffusion of knowledge…

Portrait of James Smithson. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives)

In 1826, James Smithson (1765-1829) wrote his last will and testament with the above statement included in case his nephew died without an heir, as he did in 1835.  While his motivations have been lost to history, this will by a man who never visited the United States resulted in the creation of an educational, research, and preservation organization whose main public face is the largest museum complex in the world.

To get a sense of the enormity of the Smithsonian Institution, look at some of the numbers:

In 1826, when the will was written, there was no way that James Smithson could imagine the organization that would bear his name.  In 1836, President Andrew Jackson announced the gift to Congress and on 1 July 1836 Congress accepted it.  They pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust that would be founded with Smithson’s fortune.  Two years later in September 1838, the legacy of over 100,000 gold sovereigns arrived at the Philadelphia mint where it was recoined into over $500,000.  It would take another eight years for Congress to decide how to use the money!

The Castle from the National Mall. (Photo by Thad Parsons)

On 10 August 1846, President James K. Polk established the Smithsonian Institution as a charitable trust administered by a Board of Regents and overseen by the Secretary of the Smithsonian.  In late 1846, Joseph Henry (1797-1878) was named the first Secretary.  During his tenure, he focused on increasing and disseminating knowledge but was reluctant to establish a National Museum.  The first collections had arrived with Richard Rush, the lawyer that had successfully sued on the United State’s behalf for Smithson’s fortune in the British Chancery Court, and included his library and mineralogical collection.  Further objects were added in 1848 when Robert Hare of the University of Pennsylvania gifted scientific instruments and other donations were regularly made to the young Institute.  In 1855, the Smithsonian Institution Building, commonly known as the Castle, was completed as the administrative home of the Smithsonian.  It served as the home for Henry and his family, the main office, and from 1858 until the 1960s as an exhibition space.  Today, it still houses some administrative offices, is the home of the Smithsonian Information Center, contains Smithson’s crypt, holds special exhibitions, and has guided tours of the Institute’s and Castle’s history.

The interior of the new United States National Museum building, now the Arts and Industries Building, decorated for President James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur's Inaugural Ball, March 4, 1881. This was the first event held in the building. Electric lights were strung along the ceiling and the statue of America in the rotunda held an electric lamp in her hand. Buntings and flags decorated the walls and a wooden floor was laid for the event. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute)

While Henry actively discouraged collecting, including transferring portions of the collections to the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Library of Congress in 1865 and ’66, his successor focused on creating a great National Museum.  Spencer Fullerton Baird was Secretary from 1878 to 1887 and had been Henry’s assistant since 1850.  Baird’s goal was a comprehensive collection of the continent’s natural resources at the United States National Museum.  While working as Henry’s assistant, Baird was involved in several important national events.  In 1867, his testimony about the natural resources of Alaska helped to convince Congress to purchase the territory.  In the preparations for the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, Baird planned all of the government’s exhibitions and won the Smithsonian international visibility.  Additionally, he greatly expanded the Smithsonian’s collections by convincing exhibitors to donate the majority of their displays and he then convinced Congress to construct a new National Museum Building, today known as the Arts and Industries Building.

Samuel P. Langley's Aerodrome Shop in the South Shed in the South Yard of the Smithsonian Institution Building on 31 January 1900. Langley was the third Secretary of the Smithsonian and attempted to build the first manned flying machine. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute)

Opened on 4 March 1881 for Garfield’s inauguration, the building came to house exhibits on history and natural history when it was opened to the public in October of that year.  It remained the main exhibition space for the Smithsonian until 1911 when the new U.S. National Museum Building, now known as the Natural History Building, opened.  With the opening of the new space and the removal of the natural history across the Mall, it was renamed the Arts and Industries Building and became home to many of the Institution’s most visited displays.  These included the First Ladies Gowns (a collection started in 1912 by Mrs. Howard Taft), military artifacts, and a variety of new technologies – such as photography, telegraphy, the telephone, the automobile, and aeronautics (especially “The Spirit of St. Louis” which went on display in 1928).  Since 2004, the building has been undergoing restoration and is likely to be reopened in 2014.

Here is a list of the Smithsonian’s Museums and their locations:

  • African American History and Culture Museum (National Mall, Washington, D.C.) Opens in 2015
  • African Art Museum (National Mall, Washington, D.C.)
  • Air and Space Museum (National Mall, Washington, D.C.)
  • Air and Space Museum, Udvar-Hazy Center (Chantilly, VA)
  • American History Museum (National Mall, Washington, D.C.)
  • American Indian Museum (National Mall, Washington, D.C.)
  • Anacostia Community Museum (1901 Fort Place SE, Washington, D.C.)
  • Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum (New York City)
  • Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, contains both the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and F Streets NW, Washington, D.C.)
  • Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (National Mall, Washington, D.C.)
  • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (National Mall, Washington, D.C.)
  • National Zoo (National Mall, Washington, D.C.)
  • Natural History Museum (National Mall, Washington, D.C.)
  • Postal Museum (2 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Washington, D.C.)

(Links to articles on the Travel Guide will be updated as they are completed.)

For more on the history of the Smithsonian, it maintains a number of useful resources on the history of itself and its various subsidiaries.  The majority of them can be accessed from the official Smithsonian History website.