The Smithsonian

Hello everyone, Winnie Griggs here. According to my This Day In History calendar, today, August 10 is the 174th anniversary of the day President James Polk signed the Smithsonian Institution Act into law. In honor of that, I thought I provide a little bit of history and fun facts about this great national treasure.

Although Englishman and scientist James Smithson, the man the Smithsonian is named for, was something of a globe-trotter, he never actually set foot in the United States. His estate at the time of his death in 1829 was worth approximately $500,000. In his will he named his nephew Henry as his sole heir.

However, he made one unusual stipulation – if Henry were to die without an heir, then his estate would pass on to the United States of America in order for the country to create in Washington D.C. “an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge” to be named the Smithsonian Institution. As it turns out Henry died six years later at the age of 24 without any heirs.

Smithson gave no indication as to why he would chose to leave his legacy to a country he’d never visited, a country that was to him a foreign nation. And his indication of how the funds were to be utilized was also quite vague. Because of this there was a lot of disagreement over exactly what the money was to be used for. Early discussions suggested a university would best meet the requirement. Other ideas put forth were a research center, an observatory, a museum and a library. Politicians, educators scientists and civilians all had an opinion on the subject. It took nearly 10 years for a decision to be reached. What was ultimately established by congress was a hybrid of all these ideas.

The Smithsonian Institute today has 19 museums and galleries, nine research facilities, and the National Zoological Park, making it the largest museum and research center in the world.

Here are some interesting facts and trivia

  • When Smithson’s nephew Henry died, the American government was not even aware of the bequest existed. When President Andrew Jackson was informed he had to pass the info on to Congress. Some in Congress held that our government had no power to accept such a gift, and some were even adamantly opposed to our accepting it.  One senator argued that it would set a bad precedent, that “every whippersnapper vagabond would send a gift to the United States in order to immortalize his name.” But  in 1838, three years after Henry died, the money was finally officially handed over to and accepted by the U.S. Government
  • The original building that housed the Smithsonian was built based on the winning entry in a design competition. It is called the Castle because of its distinctive castle-like appearance.

  • The official estimate of the number of objects, works of art and specimens belonging to the Smithsonian is somewhere in the neighborhood of 154 million. 146 million of these are scientific specimens found at the Museum of Natural History. Just one percent of all items are available for public viewing at any one time.
  • One category of items has been placed off limits to the viewing public – that of human remains. This includes a collection of shrunken heads and other such gruesome specimens
  • The Smithsonian museums are open every day of the year except Christmas.
  • The Smithsonian employs about 6300 individuals all told. It has an annual operating budget of more than $800 million.
  • Most of the Smithsonian exhibits are free to the public.
  • One of the institutions under the umbrella of the Smithsonian is the National Zoo. It houses 400 different species and approximately 2000 animals. About one fourth of these are considered endangered.
  • As the Smithsonian expanded it outgrew the Castle and eventually moved into the current complex of buildings. There are 19 museums spread along the East Coast. The Castle now houses the visitor center.
  • In 2018 there were approximately 29 million visitors to the various Smithsonian museums.
  • Smithson was in Italy when he died so he was buried there. In 1904 the expansion of a stone quarry threatened to displace his remains.  When Smithsonian officials got word of this they petitioned to have his casket transported to America so he could be interred at the site of his legacy. Agreement was reached and the casket made the 14 day sea trip, escorted by Alexander Graham Bell. Today Smithson’s body is entombed in the Castle.

I’ve visited the Smithsonian twice and it really is an amazing place. I spent about a half day each time and feel I only scratched the surface of all there was to see.

What do you think – did any of these facts surprise you?

Have you ever visited the Smithsonian? If so, what was your favorite exhibit?


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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
Winnie loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her on facebook at or email her at

24 thoughts on “The Smithsonian”

  1. Fortunately, living in the Mid-Atlantic, I’ve been to many of the Smithsonian museums in D.C. School trips, with family, or for work, it’s always a treat to visit. There are several Metro stops nearby and parking garages, too. Right on the Mall for a lot of the most popular, so much to see and do.


    • Hi Quiltlady. I think you’d enjoy it too – there’s something for everyone there from natural history to air and space. I’ve seen the Hope Diamond and the first lady gowns and space capsules just to name a few memorable exhibits.

  2. I have never been east of Ohio from Indiana and would love to see this and the statue of Liberty some time!!

  3. I have never been there, but now would love to visit. This is such a fascinating post. Thanks for sharing.

  4. It is an amazing place and while I was aware of the history and how it began it always surprises me to read it again. We were only able to spend a day there. I would love to go back for many days and just wander. I don’t think I had a favorite exhibit because I loved them all.

  5. I have never had the pleasure to visit The Smithsonian but reading this post I would love to go see it some day! And yes, there are a lot of fascinating facts about it that are very surprising! Thank you so very much for sharing about it.. I learned a lot about it , Thank you. Have a Great week and stay safe .

  6. When our middle daughter was working at the USDA building I visited her for several days in March of 2001. We took the Metro from the station near her apartment to the mall and she would go to work and I wandered through several of the museums on the mall. I had just two days and I could have spent both days in one building but chose to see as much as possible. I remember thinking how wonderful it was that an individual or group could just walk in. Security was tighter at the USDA building than at some of the museums I visited. Six months later a lot of things changed.
    What a wonderful treasure the Smithsonian is. So much history, so much art, so much science, so much culture.

    • Hi Alice. What a wonderful way to spend your time while your daughter was at work! And it’s such a hard choice isn’t it – whether to linger and really soak in the individual exhibits or to move through them in an attempt to see as much as possible.

  7. We lived in the Greater D.C. area in Northern Virginia for 5 years when my husband was stationed at Andrews AFB. We spent many days with our children at the various Smithsonian facilities. Three have been added since we left: the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (extension of the Air and Space), The Museum of Native American History, and The Museum of African American History and Culture. We have since gone to all but the African American Museum. Next trip. With our children, we spent most of the time at the Museum of Natural History. We are science and nature people, so that is natural. Much of that time was spent in the insect “zoo” section. We always look forward to our next trip up there to visit and see what new exhibits they have. Oddly, I don’t think we visited the Castle the whole time we lived there. We did go about 10 years ago when we brought our grandson there for a visit. His favorites were the two air and space museum. We like them all. I look forward to taking our granddaughter to them and the zoo. Oddly, the one I was looking forward to the most is the one I was most disappointed in, the Native American Museum. It covers the entirety of North, Central, and South America. That isn’t so much the problem. The museum is short on item displays and much too heavy on panels to read. I tend to read everything at museums, but many people do not. It was too much and in many cases not all that interesting. The native American exhibits that were in the Museum of American History were actually better. It seems to have been approached more like a master class in anthropology than an exhibit to show the wonderful diversity and richness of native culture. I will go back on the next trip to see if it has changed any.
    I knew most of the information about the Smithsonian. I was not aware of how the initial funding came about with his will stipulations. Thank you for an interesting post. I hope you get to go back and visit it again.
    Stay safe and healthy.

  8. I absolutely love the Smithsonian! I could go there a hundred times and never get bored! I’ve been there twice but the most recent was last year with all my adult children and 3 grandkids. It was amazing, once again. I never tired of it. My youngest daughter is a high school history teacher and the two of us could practically live there!

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