If you’ve visited Washington, DC, in addition to admiring cherry trees or exploring the monuments to Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson, you probably visited one of the Smithsonian Institution museums.
At 176 years of age (10 August 1846), the Smithsonian is the “world’s largest museum, education, and research complex, with 21 museums, the National Zoo and nine research facilities.”
James Smithson (1765-1829) was an English scientist; his mother, Elizabeth Keate Macie, “a lineal descendant of Henry VII.” At only 22 years of age, one year after graduating from Oxford, he was elected to the Royal Society. (The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge is the oldest national scientific society in the world (28 November 1660).)
Smithson traveled throughout Europe and “was the first to distinguish between zinc carbonate and zinc silicate… Since 1832, zinc carbonate has been known as smithsonite.”
Eventually he inherited a good deal of money, mainly from his mother, and decided to leave it all to his illegitimate 20-year-old nephew — but with a remarkable stipulation attached. If the nephew died childless, the fortune would go toward “an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.” Not in England. Not at all. Smithson was not about to do that. The money was to go to the United States of America.
Some have suggested that his bequest was motivated, in part, by revenge against the rigidities of British society, which had denied Smithson, who was illegitimate, the right to use his father’s name. Others have suggested it reflected his interest in the Enlightenment ideals of democracy and universal education.
Smithson died in Genoa, Italy on 27 June 1829.
The Times of London printed a copy of his will. When “the exceptional potential windfall for the United States caught the eye of an American editor,” The New York American re-printed it.
His nephew, Henry James Hungerford, died six years later. He had no children.
The sum was nearly equivalent to the then-endowment of Harvard University, an institution that had existed for 200 years by that time and was not the product of one donation, but many. We can also think about the gift in relation to the U.S. government budget. In 1838, federal spending was $38 million, so the gift represented 1/25th of that; in 2022, 1/25th of the $6 trillion federal budget would be $2.4 billion!
What should it be? Where?
For the next eight years, Congress debated what to do with the windfall.
On 10 August 1846, President James K. Polk signed legislation establishing the Smithsonian Institution as a trust to be administered by a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian. Congress rejected creating a national university or observatory. Instead, Congress directed the Board to create “a museum, a library, and a program of research, publication, and collection in the sciences, arts, and history.”
When completed in 1855, the Smithsonian Institution Building, known colloquially as “the Castle,” was situated on “an isolated piece of land cut off from downtown Washington, DC, by a canal.” (In 1872, the canal was filled in.)
At the time, it was simply called the “National Museum.”
L’Enfant’s plan shows the “Presidential Palace” and the “Congress House” on two high pieces of ground connected by a broad boulevard, what would become Pennsylvania Avenue. A mile-long Grand Avenue would run west from the Congress House — a great open space lined by the ministries and houses of statesmen, with expanses of plantings and gardens. The central garden of this area, now known as the Mall, would contain a water feature and be bordered by dense groves of trees.
That vision still languished in 1846, but the Smithsonian helped move it forward.
Today, L’Enfant’s vision of a “public walk” is what we know as the National Mall. It is a “wide, straight strip of grass and trees that stretches for two miles, from Capitol Hill to the Potomac River.”
The Smithsonian Institution set “the precedent for public educational and cultural institutions on the Mall.” Both sides of the mall feature Smithsonian museums.The Mall also includes monuments to Presidents Jefferson, Lincoln Washington as well as government buildings.
By the numbers
- Before Covid-19, about 30 million annual visitors
- 151 million objects and specimens (148 million are science-related; 8.8 million, history and culture; and 351,000, art)
- 2.1 million objects on “active loan” (fiscal 2021)
- Open 364 days a year (closed Christmas) with no admission fee
Board of Regents
The Board includes the chief justice and the vice president of the United States; three senators and three House members; and nine citizens who are nominated by the board and approved by Congress under a joint resolution signed by the president.
The current members:
- Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.
- Vice President Kamala D. Harris (ex officio)
- Senator John Boozman (R-AR)
- Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV)
- Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT)
- Representative Doris Matsui (D-CA)
- Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA)
- Representative Adrian Smith (R-NE)
- Barbara M. Barrett (A) (AZ)
- Steve Case, Chair (VA)
- John Fahey (MA)
- Roger W. Ferguson, Jr. (District of Columbia)
- Michael Govan (CA)
- Risa J. Lavizzo-Mourey, Vice Chair (PA)
- Michael M. Lynton (NY)
- Denise M. O’Leary (CO)
- Franklin D. Raines (District of Columbia)