Celebrating the Smithsonian Institution’s 175th Anniversary

By Donna K. Keesling

On August 10, 2021, the Smithsonian Institution celebrated its 175th anniversary. You probably know the Smithsonian by its many artifacts – including the Star-Spangled Banner (the flag that flew over Ft. McHenry and inspired the national anthem), the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia, the Hope Diamond, Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, and Julia Child’s kitchen. If you grew up on the East Coast, the Smithsonian museums on the Mall were likely a school field trip destination – with a visit to the National Museum of Natural History to see the elephant and dinosaur skeletons, and the First Ladies gowns at the National Museum of American History. The Smithsonian Institution is now the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex. It is comprised of nineteen museums, the National Zoo, and nine research facilities. But how did this wonderful collection of museums and research centers come into being? And how will it celebrate 175 years of “diffusing knowledge?”

James Smithson, a British chemist and mineralogist who died in 1829 at the age of 64, named his nephew Henry James Hungerford as beneficiary in his will. His will further stated that if his nephew died without heirs, his estate should go to the United States “to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” The United States was notified of Smithson’s bequest in 1835, after his unmarried nephew died at the age of twenty-six without any children.

Although there has been much speculation as to why Smithson – who had never travelled to the United States – made this bequest, no records have been found that explain his donation of what amounted to over a half million dollars. James Smithson’s papers, including unpublished manuscripts, diaries, and correspondence, and personal effects were kept in the regents’ room of the Smithsonian’s first building, known as the “Castle.” All these objects, that may have provided a hint as to his motive, were lost in a fire that destroyed the top floor of the building in January of 1865. Heather Ewing, an architectural historian at the Smithsonian, wrote a book titled The Lost World of James Smithson as an attempt to “uncover Smithson’s story, buried in the libraries and archives of Europe, Britain, and the United States.”[1] She suggests that Smithson’s association with leading scientists of the time, who looked to America with its government founded upon the rights of man as “the most promising foundation for the pursuit of knowledge and the advancement of society,”[2] as a possible reason for his bequest.

On July 1, 1836, Congress authorized acceptance of James Smithson’s bequest. However, it took more than ten years of debate before the U.S. Senate passed the act organizing the Smithsonian Institution. There was controversy between federalists and advocates of states’ rights regarding President Andrew Jackson’s request to pursue the bequest. Eventually the federalists, led by John Quincy Adams, prevailed and Richard Rush, former Attorney General and Secretary of the Treasury, went to England in 1836 to file a claim for Smithson’s estate. The estate was awarded to the United States in May 1838 and over half a million dollars was realized upon the disposal of Smithson’s properties.

Additional debate continued in Congress as to what Smithson meant by “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” and eventually an institution to carry out scientific research was decided upon. On August 10, 1846, an Act of Congress, signed into law by President James K. Polk, established the Smithsonian Institution as a trust to be administered by a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian.

The first Smithsonian building, designed by James Renwick, was completed in 1855. As the Smithsonian’s scope and collections grew, additional buildings were constructed along the Mall. In 1881 the Arts and Industries building opened, followed by the Natural History building in 1910. The National Air & Space Museum opened in 1976. The most recent opening was the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016. In December 2020, legislation was passed by Congress to establish two new museums – the National Museum of the American Latino and the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum.

The number of objects in the Smithsonian collection is over 155 million. Less than one percent of the collection is on display in the museums at any given time, and many objects are acquired and used solely for research purposes. Most objects in the collection have been donated to the Smithsonian by individuals and private collectors or acquired through transfers from federal agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

True to Smithson’s desire to “increase and diffuse knowledge,” admission to all museums and the National Zoo is free. Sixty-two percent of the Smithsonian Institution funding is from the federal government, a combination of a congressional appropriation and federal grants and contracts. Additional funding includes contributions from private sources and revenues from the Smithsonian Enterprises operation, such as the magazines, catalog, restaurants, and concessions.

From November 2021 through July 2022, visitors are invited to join the Smithsonian in celebrating its 175th anniversary by experiencing FUTURES, an exploration of the future. The Arts and Industries Building, closed for two decades, will be reopened to host the forward-looking experience. Exhibition themes include: Futures that Unite, Futures that Inspire, Futures that Work, and Futures Past. The Smithsonian at 175 page of the Smithsonian web site describes FUTURES as a “guide to a vast array of interactives, artworks, tech, and ideas that are glimpses into humanity’s next chapter.”

Although the museums and collections are vastly different from what was first established in 1846, the Smithsonian remains committed to James Smithson’s dream of “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” For its 175th anniversary, the Smithsonian intends to “celebrate how far we’ve come, the people we serve, and the incredible opportunities that lie ahead of us.”[3]

[1] Heather Ewing, The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), 11.

[2] Ewing, 17.

[3] “Our Foundation is Our Future,” Smithsonian, accessed July 31, 2021, https://aib.si.edu/futures/smithsonian-at-175/.