The Smithsonian Institution - History and Facts | History Hit

The Smithsonian Institution

Amy Irvine

17 Jul 2023
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

About The Smithsonian Institution

Collectively called the Smithsonian Institution, this renowned museum and research complex (the world’s largest) consists of 17 museums and galleries in Washington D.C. including America’s National Zoo. Its aim is to preserve heritage, discover new knowledge, and share their resources with the world.

History of The Smithsonian Institution

The Institution was founded in 1846 through a financial bequest by British Scientist James Smithson (1765–1829), the illegitimate son of a Duke. In his will, he left his considerable fortune to a nephew stipulating that, if his nephew died without heirs, the money go “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

After his nephew died, the museum complex was born. It is unclear why Smithson left such a large bequest to a place he’d never been, but his gift, The Smithsonian Institution, was officially created by an act of Congress in 1846.

Its first building was the Smithsonian Castle, a distinctive red Maryland sandstone structure completed in 1855. This towered, neo-Gothic structure designed by James Renwick, initially held the entire institution which consisted of a gallery, a natural history collection, a laboratory and the first secretary of the organisation’s apartment.

Although initially focused on scientific research, the prestigious Smithsonian expanded to encompass a vast range of disciplines, including history, art, anthropology, and more. 

The Smithsonian Institution today

It can be hard to know where to head first, but a good place to start is the Smithsonian Institution Building, known as “The Castle” due to the building’s appearance – a replica of a 12th-century Norman castle. This visitor’s centre has interactive 3-D maps pinpointing and detailing the 17 DC-area Smithsonian Institution properties, and contains the America’s Treasure Chest exhibit, giving visitors a glimpse of just some of the types of artefacts displayed in all the Smithsonian museums.

It also houses the exhibit A Castle of Curiosities, which delves into the history of the castle and Smithson’s life. The final resting place of the Smithsonian’s founder, James Smithson, is also located at the Castle’s north entrance.

The Smithsonian collections contain over 155 million objects, works of art and specimens – from the origins of man at The Natural History Museum which includes objects such as the famed Hope Diamond, to the history of flight and the future of space travel at the Air and Space Museum where you can even see the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer. Which museums you visit clearly depends on your interests. Highlights include the American History Museum, America’s 163-acre National Zoo (which features 300 species and serves as a global research and conservation facility), the Smithsonian American Art Museum, America’s National Portrait Gallery, and the American Indian Museum. The newest addition to the Institution’s collection is the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Admission to all Smithsonian museums is free, though you would obviously need multiple visits to pack them all in.

Getting to The Smithsonian Institution

Many of the museums are located on the National Mall and are easily accessible by Metro, including the visitor centre which has its own Metro stop on the Orange and Blue lines. Other Smithsonian museums are scattered throughout Washington D.C., such as the National Zoo in Woodley Park and the Postal Museum near Union Station (as well as one in Virginia).

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