The Smithsonian Institution

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Strolling in Front of the Castle, c. 1849. A few years later, a severe fire destroyed many of the records of the early years of the Smithsonian. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Now over 170 years old, the Smithsonian Institution welcomes millions of visitors every year. It encompasses nineteen museums, a national zoo, nine research facilities, and has over 200 affiliate museums throughout the United States. Interestingly, the origins of the world’s largest museum lie not in the United States, but in Europe. Still more intriguing is that its founding benefactor was an Englishman who never visited the United States. The illegitimate son of an English Duke and a wealthy Englishwoman, James Smithson (1765-1829) was born in Paris and educated in England. An amateur scientist, Smithson’s election to the Royal Society of London in 1787, only a year after finishing college, suggests that he earned at a young age the interest and respect of his fellow scientists. Throughout his life, Smithson traveled widely as he pursued his meticulous research in chemistry and mineralogy. (The mineral "smithsonite", or zinc carbonate, is named after him.) 

Smithson died unmarried in Genoa, Italy, in 1829, at the age of 64. As he had no children of his own, he decided to leave his sizable fortune to his nephew, Henry Hungerford. Smithson stipulated however, that should Henry die without heirs, the entire bequest would be used "to found in Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Hungerford died without children in 1835; it must have been an interesting moment when President Andrew Jackson officially called upon Congress to claim Smithson’s estate. 

The reasons behind Smithson’s generous bequest remain unclear to this day and not everyone in the United States government at the time was convinced the country should accept it. Some Jacksonian Democrats like John C. Calhoun worried about expanding the reach and power of the central government and argued that Congress did not have the authority to establish a national museum. Their Whig opponents, including former President John Quincy Adams, strongly disagreed, and Congress voted to claim the bequest, a startlingly large sum of more than $500,000. Not until August 10, 1846, however, did President James K. Polk sign an Act of Congress establishing the Smithsonian Institution as a trust administered by a Board of Regents, overseen by a Secretary. In 1904, Alexander Graham Bell, in his position as a Smithsonian Regent, brought James Smithson’s remains from Italy and placed them in a crypt in the Smithsonian Institution building known as the Castle. Erected in 1855, the Castle was home until 1881, to all Smithsonian exhibit halls, collections, administrative offices, and laboratories, as well as to the Smithsonian Secretary and his family. 

Its extensive collections have earned the Smithsonian the affectionate nickname, “America’s Attic,” but the museum’s mission also included from the beginning active research and the dissemination of knowledge. Even in its early years, this included research and publications relating to the growing fields of ichnology and paleontology. The Smithsonian paid for the production of illustrations for James Deane's Ichnographs from the Sandstone of Connecticut River, and in 1861, entered into an agreement with Little, Brown and Company of Boston to publish the book posthumously.

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