The Smithsonian Institution ( ), or simply, the Smithsonian, is a group of museums and education and research centers, the largest such complex in the world, created by the U.S. government "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge". Founded on August 10, 1846, it operates as a trust instrumentality and is not formally a part of any of the three branches of the federal government. The institution is named after its founding donor, British scientist James Smithson. It was originally organized as the United States National Museum, but that name ceased to exist administratively in 1967.
Called "the nation's attic" for its eclectic holdings of 154 million items, the Institution's 19 museums, 21 libraries, nine research centers, and zoo include historical and architectural landmarks, mostly located in the District of Columbia.
The Institution's 30 million annual visitors are admitted without charge. Its annual budget is around $1.25 billion, with two-thirds coming from annual federal appropriations. Other funding comes from the Institution's endowment, private and corporate contributions, membership dues, and earned retail, concession, and licensing revenue. As of 2021, the Institution's endowment had a total value of about $5.4 billion.
The Institute proposed a number of undertakings. These included the study of plant life and the creation of a botanical garden on the Capitol Mall, an examination of the country's mineral production, improvement in the management and care of livestock, and the writing of a topographical and statistical history of the United States. Reports were to be published periodically to share this knowledge with the greater public, but due to a lack of funds, this initially did not occur. The Institute first met in Blodget's Hotel, later in the Treasury Department and City Hall, before being assigned a permanent home in 1824 in the Capitol building.
Beginning in 1825, weekly sittings were arranged during sessions of Congress for the reading of scientific and literary productions, but this was continued for only a short time, as the number attending declined rapidly. Eighty-five communications by 26 people were made to Congress during the entire life of the society, with more than a half relating to astronomy or mathematics. Among all the activities planned by the Institute, only a few were actually implemented. Two were the establishment of a botanical garden, and a museum that was designed to have a national and permanent status. The former occupied space where the present Botanic Garden sits.
The museum contained specimens of zoology, botany, archeology, fossils, etc., some of which were passed on to the Smithsonian Institution after its formation. The Institute's charter expired in 1838, but its spirit lived on in the National Institution, founded in 1840. With the mission to "promote science and the useful arts, and to establish a national museum of natural history," this organization continued to press Congress to establish a museum that would be structured in terms that were very similar to those finally incorporated into the founding of the Smithsonian Institution. Its work helped to develop an underlying philosophy that pushed for the pursuit and development of scientific knowledge that would benefit the nation, and edify its citizens at the same time.
The British scientist James Smithson (1765–1829) left most of his wealth to his nephew Henry James Hungerford. When Hungerford died childless in 1835, 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. 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. 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 . This is approximately $500,000 at the time, which is or . However, when considering the GDP at the time it may be more comparable to $220 million in the year 2007.Heather 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.
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". 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 former president) John Quincy Adams persuaded Congress to restore the lost funds with interest"Smithsonian Information Brochure", Smithsonian Visitor Information and Associates' Reception Center, May 2009 and, despite designs on the money for other purposes, convinced his colleagues to preserve it for an institution of science and learning.Nagel, Paul (1999). "John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life". Harvard University Press. p. 348. 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.
In 1846, the regents developed a plan for weather observation; in 1847, money was appropriated for meteorological research. The Institution became a magnet for young scientists from 1857 to 1866, who formed a group called the Megatherium Club.
The Smithsonian's first expansion came with the 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.
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. This structure was designed by the D.C. architectural firm of Hornblower & Marshall."New Museum Plans." Washington Post. April 13, 1903.
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.
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.
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. The National Air and Space Museum, the Smithsonian's largest in terms of floor space, opened in June 1976.
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. 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.
In 2004, the Smithsonian opened the National Museum of the American Indian in a new building near the United States Capitol. 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.
Two more museums have been established and are being planned for eventual construction on the mall: the National Museum of the American Latino and the National Women's History Museum.
Separately from the major capital campaign, the Smithsonian has begun fundraising through Kickstarter. 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.
The Smithsonian has close ties with 168 other museums in 39 states, Panama, and Puerto Rico. 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). Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) In 2008, 58 of these traveling exhibitions went to 510 venues across the country.
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.
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 at the National Museum of American History, one of the Smithsonian's most popular exhibits. The museum displays treasures such as the Star-Spangled Banner, the stove pipe hat that was worn by President Abraham 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. In 2016, the Smithsonian's Air & Space museum curators restored the large model Enterprise from the original TV series.
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. The MSC covers of land, with over of space, making it one of the largest set of structures in the Smithsonian. It has over of cabinets, and more than 31 million objects.
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.
After difficult times in the first few years, the center improved. According to the Smithsonian, the center "supports scholarly research, exhibitions, public and educational programs, web-based content and virtual platforms, and collections and archives. It also manages leadership and professional development programs for Latino youth, emerging scholars and museum professionals." Today, the website features a high-tech virtual museum.
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.
Pilar O'Leary launched the program when she served as executive director of the Smithsonian Latino Center. 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."
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.
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. 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 Steve Case.
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. 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. Cooper, Rebecca. "Smithsonian Chief Will Retire in 2014." Washington Business Journal. September 18, 2013. Accessed September 18, 2013. On March 10, 2014, the Smithsonian Board selected 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. Parker, Lonnae O'Neal Parker and Boyle, Katherine. "Smithsonian Institution Names Cornell President As Its 13th Secretary." Washington Post. March 10, 2014. Accessed March 10, 2014. Upon Skorton's announced resignation in 2019, the Board selected Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, as the 14th secretary.
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. The Smithsonian is now a participant in the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
In April 2006, the institution entered into an agreement of "first refusal" rights for its vast silent film 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.