Smithsonian Institution

Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian Institution

Rear view of "The Castle", the Institution's headquarters
Established August 10, 1846
Location Washington, D.C.
Public transit access Smithsonian, L'Enfant Plaza Maryland Avenue exit.

The Smithsonian Institution (play /smɪθˈsniən/ smith-soh-nee-ən) is an educational and research institute and associated museum complex, administered and funded by the government of the United States and by funds from its endowment, contributions, and profits from its retail operations, concessions, licensing activities, and magazines. The Smithsonian has requested $797.6 million from Congress in 2011 to fund its operations. While most of its 19 museums, its zoo, and its nine research centers facilities are located in Washington, D.C., sites are also located in Arizona, Maryland, New York City, Virginia, Panama, and elsewhere. The Smithsonian has over 136 million items in its collections,[1] publishes two magazines named Smithsonian (monthly) and Air & Space (bimonthly), and employs the Smithsonian Police to protect visitors, staff, and the property of its museums. The Institution's current logo is a stylized sun. The Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum complex in the world, and many of its buildings are historical and architectural landmarks. In addition, 168 other museums are Smithsonian affiliates.[1]



The Smithsonian Institution was founded for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge" from a bequest to the United States by the British scientist James Smithson (1764–1829), who never visited the new nation. In Smithson's will, he stated that should his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, die without heirs, the Smithson estate would go to the government of the United States to create an "Establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge among men". After the nephew died without heirs in 1835, President Andrew Jackson informed Congress of the bequest, which amounted to 104,960 gold sovereigns, or US$500,000 ($10,100,997 in 2008 U.S. dollars after inflation). The money was invested in shaky state bonds, which quickly defaulted. After heated debate in Congress, Massachusetts Representative (and former President) John Quincy Adams successfully argued to restore the lost funds with interest.[2] Though congress wanted to use the money for other purposes, Adams successfully persuaded congress to preserve the money for an institution of science and learning.[3] Congress also debated whether the federal government had the authority to accept the gift. Congress accepted the legacy bequeathed to the nation and pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust on July 1, 1836.[4]

When the Detroit philanthropist Charles Lang Freer donated his private collection to the Smithsonian and funds to build the museum to hold it (which was named the Freer Gallery), it was among the Smithsonian's first major donations from a private individual. The gallery opened in 1923.

Though the Smithsonian's first Secretary, Joseph Henry, wanted the Institution to be a center for scientific research, before long it also became the depository for various Washington and U.S. government collections. The United States Exploring Expedition by the U.S. Navy circumnavigated the globe between 1838 and 1842. The voyage amassed thousands of animal specimens, an herbarium of 50,000 plant specimens, and diverse shells and minerals, tropical birds, jars of seawater, and ethnographic artifacts from the South Pacific. These specimens and artifacts became part of the Smithsonian collections, as did those collected by several military and civilian surveys of the American West, including the Mexican Boundary Survey and Pacific Railroad Surveys, which assembled many Native American artifacts and natural history specimens.

The Institution became a magnet for natural scientists from 1857 to 1866, who formed a group called the Megatherium Club. Many scientists of a variety of disciplines work at the various Smithsonian museums, which have become centers for research.

The asteroid 3773 Smithsonian, discovered in 1984, is named in honor of the Institution.

The 2009 film Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian was the first commercial production to be given rights to use the Smithsonian Institution's name.


The Smithsonian Castle doorway

The Smithsonian Institution is established as a trust instrumentality by act of Congress, and it is functionally and legally a body of the U.S. government, but separate from the government's federal legislative, executive, and judicial branches. More than two-thirds of the Smithsonian's workforce of some 6,300 persons are employees of the federal government. Attorneys from the United States Department of Justice represent the Smithsonian in litigation, and any money judgments against the Smithsonian are paid from the federal treasury.

As approved by Congress on August 10, 1846, the legislation that created the Smithsonian Institution called for the creation of a Board of Regents to govern and administer the organization. This 17-member board meets at least four times a year and includes as ex officio members the Chief Justice of the United States and the Vice President of the United States. The nominal head of the Institution is the Chancellor, an office which has traditionally been held by the Chief Justice. In September 2007, the Board created the position of Chair of the Board of Regents, a position currently held by Patricia Q. Stonesifer of Washington State.[5]

Other members of the Board of Regents are three members of the U.S. House of Representatives appointed by the Speaker of the House; three members of the Senate, appointed by the President pro tempore of the Senate; and nine citizen members, nominated by the Board and approved by the Congress in a joint resolution signed by the President of the United States.[6] Regents who are senators or representatives serve for the duration of their elected terms, while citizen Regents serve a maximum of two six-year terms. Regents are compensated on a part-time basis.

The chief executive officer (CEO) of the Smithsonian is the Secretary, who is appointed by the Board of Regents. There have been 13 Secretaries since the Smithsonian was established. The Secretary also serves as secretary to the Board of Regents, but is not a voting member of that body. The Secretary of the Smithsonian has the privilege of the floor at the United States Senate.

Secretaries of the Smithsonian

  1. Joseph Henry, 1846–1878
  2. Spencer Fullerton Baird, 1878–1887
  3. Samuel Pierpont Langley, 1887–1906
  4. Charles Doolittle Walcott, 1907–1927
  5. Charles Greeley Abbot, 1928–1944
  6. Alexander Wetmore, 1944–1952
  7. Leonard Carmichael, 1953–1964
  8. Sidney Dillon Ripley, 1964–1984
  9. Robert McCormick Adams, 1984–1994
  10. Ira Michael Heyman, 1994–1999
  11. Lawrence M. Small, 2000–2007
  12. Cristián Samper, 2007–2008 (acting)
  13. G. Wayne Clough, 2008-[7]

Samper continues to serve as the director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

Smithsonian museums

A variety of aircraft are displayed at the National Air and Space Museum. The most notable are a Ford Trimotor and a Douglas DC-3 (top and second from top)

There are nineteen museums and galleries, as well as the National Zoological Park, that comprise the Smithsonian museums.[8] The majority, eleven, of these museums are located on the National Mall, which is the strip of land in Washington, D.C. running between the Lincoln Memorial and the United States Capitol, with the Washington Monument providing a division slightly west of the center. Other museums are located elsewhere in Washington, D.C., as well as two in New York City and one in Chantilly, Virginia.

The Smithsonian also holds close ties with 168 museums in 39 states, as well as Panama and Puerto Rico.[8] These museums are known as Smithsonian Affiliated museums. Collections of artifacts are given to these museums in the form of long-term loans from the Smithsonian. These long-term loans are not the only Smithsonian exhibits outside the Smithsonian museums. The Smithsonian also has a large number of traveling exhibitions. In 2008, 58 of these traveling exhibitions went to 510 venues across the country.[8]

Smithsonian research centers and programs

The following is a list of Smithsonian research centers, with their affiliated museum in parentheses:

Also of note is the Museum Support Center (MSC), located in Suitland, Maryland, which is the principal off-site conservation and collections facility for multiple Smithsonian museums, primarily the National Museum of Natural History. The MSC was dedicated in May 1983.[9] The MSC covers 4.5 acres (18,000 m2) of land, with over 500,000 square feet (46,000 m2) of space, making it one of the largest set of structures in the Smithsonian. It has over 12 miles (19 km) of cabinets, and more than 31 million objects.


Enola Gay display

In 1994, controversy arose over the exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum associated with display of the Enola Gay, the Superfortress used by the United States to execute the first atomic bombing in World War II. The American Legion and Air Force Association believed the exhibit put forward only one side of the debate over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that it emphasized the effect on the victims without the overall context of the war. The Smithsonian changed the exhibit, displaying the aircraft only with associated technical data and without discussion of its historic role in the war.

Censorship of "Seasons of Life and Land"

In 2003, a National Museum of Natural History exhibit, Subhankar Banerjee's Seasons of Life and Land, featuring photographs of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, was censored and moved to the basement by Smithsonian officials because they feared that its subject matter was too politically controversial.[10]

In November 2007, the Washington Post reported internal criticism has been raised regarding the institution's handling of the exhibit on the Arctic. According to documents and e-mails, the exhibit and its associated presentation were edited at high levels to add "scientific uncertainty" regarding the nature and impact of global warming on the Arctic. Acting Secretary of the Smithsonian Cristián Samper was interviewed by the Post, and claimed the exhibit was edited because it contained conclusions that went beyond what could be proven by contemporary climatology.[11] The Smithsonian is now a participant in the U.S. Global Change Research Program.[12][off-topic?]

Copyright restrictions

The Smithsonian Institution provides access to its image collections for educational, scholarly and nonprofit uses. Commercial uses are generally restricted unless permission is obtained. Smithsonian images fall into different copyright categories; some are protected by copyright, many are subject to license agreements or other contractual conditions, and some fall into the public domain, such as those prepared by Smithsonian employees as part of their official duties. The Smithsonian’s terms of use for its digital content, including images, are set forth on the Smithsonian Web site.[13][14]

In April 2006, the institution entered into an agreement of "first refusal" rights for its vast silent and public domain film archives with Showtime Networks. Critics contend this agreement effectively gives Showtime control over the film archives, as it requires filmmakers to obtain permission from the network to use extensive amounts of film footage from the Smithsonian archives.[15]

The Smithsonian contends independent producers continue to have unchanged access to the institution and its collections as they had prior to the agreement[citation needed]. The process to gain access to film at the Smithsonian remains the same. Since January 2006, independent producers have made more than 500 requests to film in the museums and collections, and/or to use archival footage and photos.[citation needed]


The Smithsonian Institution receives funding from the United States Government, through the House and Senate Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations subcommittees.[16][17] The President’s fiscal year 2011 budget request to Congress for the Smithsonian is $797.6 million, an increase from the $761.4 million appropriated to the Institution in FY 2010. The Salaries and Expenses budget request for FY 2011 is $660.8 million and the Facilities Capital budget is $136.8 million.[18] During the 1995-1996 Government Shutdown, the Smithsonian closed, due to lack of money to pay salaries.[19][20][21] In 2007, there was controversy about Secretary Small's expenses and compensation.[22] There is a plan to reduce a backlog in deferred maintenance.[23] In 2010, the Deficit Commission recommended admission fees,[24] which has been resisted.[25]

Office of Protection Services (OPS)

The Smithsonian Office of Protection Services oversees security at the Smithsonian facilities. The Secretary of the Smithsonian may designate employees to have Special Police Status to enforce regulations within the Smithsonian facilities and grounds as well as areas of the National Capital Parks in D.C.

According to 40 U.S.C. § 6306, Smithsonian staff who are designated as Special police have arrest authority within the Smithsonian buildings and grounds, and may enforce laws and regulations for National Capital Parks together with the United States Park Police.

The Office of Protection Services has three main positions within the division, all of which are U.S. government positions:[citation needed]

  • Smithsonian Museum Protection Officers/Guards;
  • Smithsonian Museum Physical Security Specialists and Supervisory Physical Security Specialists; and
  • Smithsonian Zoological Park Police Officers are assigned to the 163-acre (0.66 km2) National Zoo in the District Of Columbia.

See also

Flag of Washington, D.C..svg District of Columbia portal
  • List of aircraft in the Smithsonian Institution
  • Smithsonian Ocean Portal


  1. ^ a b "About the Smithsonian". 
  2. ^ "Smithsonian Information Brochure", Smithsonian Visitor Information and Associates' Reception Center, May 2009
  3. ^ Nagel, Paul. "John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life". p348. 1999, Harvard University Press
  4. ^ James Smithson Jr.
  5. ^ "Smithsonian Regents Fact Sheet", Smithsonian Institution
  6. ^ Smithsonian Press Kit
  7. ^ The Secretaries of the Smithsonian Institution
  8. ^ a b c Facts about the Smithsonian Institution. (Pressroom of the Smithsonian Institution). Retrieved February 19, 2011
  9. ^ "Smithsonian reveals its hidden treasures". The Washington Times. August 16, 2007. Retrieved September 14, 2009. 
  10. ^ Trescott, Jacqueline (May 21, 2003). "Smithsonian's Arctic Refuge Exhibit Draws Senate Scrutiny". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 23, 2010. 
  11. ^ Grimaldi, James V.; Trescott, Jacqueline (2007-11-16). "Scientists Fault Climate Exhibit Changes". Washington Post: p. 4. Retrieved 2007-11-18. 
  12. ^ "Integrating federal research and solutions for climate and global change". Participating Departments and Agencies. U.S. Global Change Research Program. Retrieved 30 2010. 
  13. ^ Terms of use of this website.
  14. ^ Smithsonian Images-Copyright
  15. ^ Wyatt, Edward (April 1, 2006). "Smithsonian Agreement Angers Filmmakers". New York Times,. Retrieved May 23, 2010. 
  16. ^ "National Coalition for History » Smithsonian Institution FY ’08 Funding". 2007-12-26. Retrieved 2010-11-18. 
  17. ^ "National Coalition for History » Blog Archive » Smithsonian Institution FY 2010 Budget". 2009-10-30. Retrieved 2010-11-18. 
  18. ^ "Smithsonian Fiscal Year 2011 Federal Budget Request Totals $797.6 Million". Retrieved 2011-03-23. 
  19. ^ "Online NewsHour: Shutdown Perspective – November 15, 1995". 1995-11-15. Retrieved 2010-11-18. 
  20. ^ Kenneth Dautrich, David A. Yalof (2009). American Government: Historical, Popular, and Global Perspectives, Brief Edition. Cengage Learning. ISBN 9780495566151. 
  21. ^ "Saturday Air and Space Museum Journal – C-SPAN Video Library". 1995-12-23. Retrieved 2010-11-18. 
  22. ^ "The Smithsonian Institution – Lessons in Governance (Part One)". Nonprofit Law Blog. Retrieved 2010-11-18. 
  23. ^ "U.S. GAO – Smithsonian Institution: Facilities Management Reorganization Is Progressing, but Funding Remains a Challenge". 2008-09-29. Retrieved 2010-11-18. 
  24. ^
  25. ^ "Smithsonian Responds to Deficit Commission’s Recommendation on Admission Fees | Newsdesk". 2010-11-12. Retrieved 2010-11-18. 

Further reading

  • Nina Burleigh, Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America's Greatest Museum, The Smithsonian, HarperCollins, September 2003, hardcover, 288 pages, ISBN 0-06-000241-7
  • Heather Ewing (2007). The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian. Bloomsbury. ISBN 9780747576532. 

External links

Coordinates: 38°53′20″N 77°01′34″W / 38.8888°N 77.026°W / 38.8888; -77.026

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