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?