How the Smithsonian Institution Works

By: Jessika Toothman
Famous architectural landmark, a tourist hotspot.
The Castle, the first Smithsonian Institution Building. See more pictures of Washington, D.C.
AP Photo/Smithsonian Institution

The people at the Smithsonian Institution do nothing halfway. So when they boast of being the world's largest museum complex and research organization, they have some pretty impressive stats to prove it. As of 2009, the Smithsonian's vast collections encompassed some 137 million artifacts, objects, artworks and specimens. Interestingly, the huge majority of those are all part of the massive scientific collections amassed by the National Museum of Natural History -- to the tune of more than 126 million [source: Smithsonian Institution].

Sadly, though, even the most avid visitors won't see anything close to that number of national relics in their lifetimes; although the Smithsonian Institution encompasses 19 museums and galleries (and one zoo, of course -- that's about 1,800 animals) it can fit less than 2 percent of its immense holdings into exhibits at any one time [source: Smithsonian Institution]. Most resides in storage and isn't accessible to the general public, although it's an initiative of the current Smithsonian leadership to create an online digital archive of all 137 million items so that anyone can browse at will.


Most of what the Smithsonian acquires comes by way of donations, although only a small portion of the plethora of proffered objects is actually accepted. Staff at the Institution evaluates items carefully to determine if they truly enhance existing collections -- and are worth preserving for future generations -- which can be a very challenging task. But the quest to document all the important aspects of American life (and pretty much everything else) continues. You can read about some of the odder cultural relics that have been collected over the years in 5 Strange Things in the Smithsonian's Collection.

Despite the fact that the Smithsonian Institution is decidedly American, it was founded by a British scientist who had never set foot in the country, nor, apparently, had any American acquaintances. Even his personal opinion and knowledge of the nation are largely unknown. On the next page, we'll find out how this unlikely sounding scenario led to the founding of one of the most important repositories of knowledge and culture on the planet.


The Smithsonian's Mysterious Founder

The Smithsonian Institution owes its existence to James Smithson, a British scientist who lived from 1765 to 1829. Not a whole lot is known about the man, least of all why he chose to make his generous gift to a country he had no strong identifiable connection to, but there are some facts we do know. He was an illegitimate child, who, along with his half brother, inherited a substantial estate. Smithson was a noted chemist, mineralogist and geologist who published more than two dozen papers in those fields. He was also a fellow of the Royal Society of London and a charter member of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

In Smithson's last will and testament, which he drew up in 1826, he named his nephew as his major beneficiary. Had that nephew fathered a child, legitimate or otherwise, the fortune would have passed to him or her upon the nephew's death. But since he died without heirs in 1835, the lucky recipient turned out to be the United States of America. The fortune involved, which at the time was valued at $508,318.46, would be worth around $9 million in today's dollars [sources: The Smithsonian Institution, MeasuringWorth].


Along with his extremely generous and curious bequest, Smithson also penned what is still considered the Smithsonian's mission statement: "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 [...]"

The exact motive Smithson had for leaving behind such a legacy has never been discerned, although various theories have been proposed. Perhaps it was bitterness over his illegitimate status in society, or irritation with the actions of his scientific peers. Perhaps he wished to help promote the ideals of the Enlightenment in a flourishing young country, or simply ensure he was remembered long after his passing.

A fire ravaged the original Smithsonian building in 1865 and the majority of Smithson's personal papers and other possessions were lost in the blaze. Many people have since tried to lift the veil on Smithson's life through other sources, such as his collection of books, scant surviving writings, bank records, and others' diaries and correspondences, but the reason for his gift remains enigmatic.

As you may well imagine, Smithson's vaguely worded bequest could have been interpreted any number of ways, and the vast sum of money involved was a tempting carrot when dangled in front of squabbling U.S. statesmen during a national depression.


The Decade of Debate

Not everyone in the United States was overjoyed with the unexpected windfall, to the point where some questioned whether the money should even be accepted in the first place. Dissenters said Congress didn't have the authority to accept the gift; a few questioned the constitutionality of consenting; and others maintained that such an action would tarnish the nation's dignity.

But on July 1, 1836, President Andrew Jackson signed a bill that signaled the United States' intent to receive the legacy. The claim made its way through British courts and in the summer of 1838, Smithson's fortune finally arrived in America. Congress now faced the much larger question of what the money would be used for -- a subject that would occupy them for the next eight years.


Suggestions poured in from all quarters, ranging from libraries and laboratories to museums and universities. Congressman and former President John Quincy Adams was a forceful advocate in the matter of the bequest, and he championed the cause until the final bill was hammered out. It was signed into law on Aug. 10, 1846, and loosely encompassed many of those early proposals, although the details were largely left up to the newly established Board of Regents. It also reclaimed the fortune (which had been largely squandered on a bad investment in defaulted state bonds) and awarded the Institution the amount that the legacy would have made in interest during the eight-year interim.

The 17-member Board of Regents consists of the sitting chief justice and vice president of the United States, along with three members of the House of Representatives, three members of the Senate, and nine private citizens. The Smithsonian's secretary (basically, its CEO) is appointed by the regents but isn't a voting member of the board.


The Secretaries Leave Legacies of Their Own

The Smithsonian Institution
Wayne Clough, the Smithsonian Institution's 12th secretary.
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

It would be almost another decade before the Smithsonian Institution Building, often affectionately referred to as "the Castle," would be complete. But that didn't stop its early leaders -- starting with Joseph Henry -- from commencing to collect artifacts. The first contribution came in 1848, when Robert Hare, a chemist at the University of Pennsylvania, donated some of his scientific apparatus to the Institution.

Over the intervening years, the Smithsonian's successive secretaries weren't shy when it came to seeking donations and funds to expand the Institution's collections and facilities. The second secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird, interacted with the majority of the exhibitors at the Centennial Exposition of 1876, talking them into donating their exhibits after the expo concluded. He also convinced Congress to fund the construction of the Arts and Industries Building.


Baird's successor, Samuel Pierpont Langley, was responsible for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the Children's Room and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He was followed by Charles Doolittle Walcott, who helped architect the opening of the National Museum of Natural History. It was also during his time that the Smithsonian acquired the original Star-Spangled Banner.

Charles Greeley Abbot came next, and he was instrumental in securing both the Spirit of St. Louis and the 1903 Wright Flyer for the Institution, as well as spearheading other expansion efforts. Following Abbot came Alexander Wetmore, who oversaw the establishment of the National Air and Space Museum, and the modernization and inauguration of several new exhibit halls. Leonard Carmichael, the Smithsonian's seventh secretary, oversaw the transfer of the Patent Office Building to the Institution (it would open as the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery a few years later), as well as construction of the National Museum of American History and several other capital improvement projects.

S. Dillon Ripley came after Carmichael, and lots of developments happened on his 20-year watch, among them the establishment of the Anacostia Community Museum, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the National Museum of African Art. Several additional initiatives also sprang up, like the Center for Folklore and Cultural Heritage, the Conservation and Research Center of the National Zoo, and Smithsonian Magazine.

During the tenure of Robert McCormick Adams, the National Postal Museum opened, and he and his successor, I. Michael Heyman, both worked to establish and secure funds for the National Museum of the American Indian. Heyman started up the Smithsonian's first Web site in 1995 and also secured the namesake donation for the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, which, along with the National Museum of the American Indian, opened under the watch of the Smithsonian's 11th Secretary, Lawrence M. Small. The current secretary of the Smithsonian, Wayne Clough, took over in July 2008 and has since directed the reopening of the National Museum of American History with the debut of the Sant Ocean Hall.

Taken as a team, the secretaries have contributed seamlessly to the long and constant effort of furthering the Smithsonian's touted position as "the world's largest museum complex and research organization." So now that we've gotten a better idea of the wide-reaching Smithsonian's scope, we'll learn more about some of the scientific endeavors the Institution partakes in.


The Science of the Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Institution
Panda Tai Shan, shown here at 7-months-old, horsed around with mom Mei Xiang at the National Zoo.
AP Photo/Ann Batdorf/National Zoo

About 70 percent of the Smithsonian Institution's budget (or a little more than $760 million in 2010) comes from the federal government. The rest is made up of additional sources such as private contributions and retail revenues [source: Smithsonian Institution]. However, this money doesn't just go toward museum-orientated activities like preserving historic artifacts or building art exhibits, it also helps fund the Smithsonian's other, and original, endeavor: the pursuit of science.

It all stems from Smithson's initial stipulation: that the Institution which bore his name be dedicated to "the increase & diffusion of knowledge." To that end, the Smithsonian Institution is much more than a complex of museums all looking toward the past. It's also an active research engine with hundreds of scientists working diligently to untangle the mysteries around us and look ahead to solving any that might arise in the future.


Apart from carefully housing a great number of the specimens and artifacts that prove invaluable in the research efforts of many, the Smithsonian Institution engages in scientific activity in a number of ways. It runs nine independent research centers and has many additional ongoing research programs operating around the world, often in collaboration with peers from other scientific-minded organizations. When it comes to diffusing knowledge, they've got that covered by publishing papers, preparing cutting-edge exhibits and offering public classes. Students can also apply for fellowships, internships and volunteer appointments.

The diverse topics that have been studied recently by Smithsonian scientists range from avian flu and crystal skulls to jellyfish courtships and mapping Mars. One interesting project at the National Zoological Park involves the Genome Resource Bank. In it are preserved biological substances from numerous species in danger of disappearing, and it supports many of the conservation efforts that are being conducted to help push animal populations back from the brink in threatened habitats across the globe.

Needless to say, the Smithsonian certainly has a lot going on. If you're ready to do some discovering of your own, you can find links on the next page to lots more interesting articles about everything from Noah's Ark to the Doomsday Ark.


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More Great Links

  • Burleigh, Nina. "The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America's Greatest Museum: The Smithsonian." HarperCollins Publishers." 2003. (2/1/2010)
  • Colquhoun, Kate. "A very British pioneer." Telegraph. May 31, 2007. (2/1/2010)
  • Dowd, Maureen. "Cleaning the Nation's Attic." Time. Feb. 8, 1982. (2/1/2010),9171,953316,00.html
  • Ewing, Heather. "Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian." Barnes & Noble. (2/1/2010)
  • Greenfieldboyce, Nell. "Shuttle Keepsakes Up For Grabs." NPR. Jan. 19, 2010. (2/1/2010)
  • Kennicott, Philip. "'American Idol' Desk: Artifact or Artifice." Washington Post. Aug. 30, 2009. (2/2/2010)
  • Larner, Jesse. "Foreign Motivations: How a former president and an English scientist gave us the Smithsonian." San Francisco Chronicle. Dec. 21, 2003. (2/1/2010)
  • Officer, Lawrence H. and Williamson, Samuel H. "Computing 'Real Value' Over Time With a Conversion Between U.K. Pounds and U.S. Dollars, 1830 to Present." MeasuringWorth. 2009. (2/1/2010)
  • Small, Lawrence. "A Man in Full. Smithsonian Magazine. March 2007. (2/1/2010)
  • Smith, Jeffrey. "Smithsonian Inventory Turns up Lots of Stuff." Science. July 29, 1983. (2/2/2010)
  • The Smithsonian Institution's Web sites. (2/1/2010)