Smithsonian Institution

views updated Jun 08 2018

Smithsonian Institution

1000 Jefferson Drive S.W.
Washington, DC 20560
(202) 357-1300
Fax: (202) 786-2377
Web site:

Public Institution
Employees: 6,300
Revenues: $552 million (1998)

The Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum, education, and research system in the world, with 16 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park, and ten research centers, all with free admittance. It is the home of the Hope Diamond, the Wright brothers airplane, the original Star Spangled Banner, and some 140 million other items, and it attracts more than 28 million visitors a year. The Smithsonian also produces records and tapes through Smithsonian Folkways Recordings; publishes books and magazines; produces television documentaries, home videos, and radio shows; operates 16 museum stores and mail order and on-line catalogs; conducts numerous educational activities through its membership programs; and annually sponsors a juried craft show and the Festival of American Folklife. In fiscal 1998, 72 percent of the Smithsonians revenues came from its annual federal appropriation. The remainder came from gifts and grants, contracts, investments, membership programs, and sales.

A Provision in a Will: 1829

The man who endowed the Smithsonian Institution was born in France in 1765, the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, the first Duke of Northumberland, and Elizabeth Keate Hungerford Macie, a widow connected to the royal family. Named James Lewis Macie, he took his fathers name after his mothers death in 1800.

A graduate of Oxford and an avid scientist, James Smithson traveled throughout Europe studying chemistry, mineralogy, and geology. He wrote 27 articles for scientific journals dealing with topics ranging from a better way to make coffee to the chemical makeup of a womans teardrop. His personal library contained 213 volumes, and a type of zinc carbonate was renamed smithsonite in his honor.

When Smithson died in 1829, he left the bulk of his estate to his nephew, Henry Hungerford. A clause in his will, however, stated that should Hungerford die without heirs (legitimate or illegitimate), the estate would go to the United States of America to found at Washington, under the name of Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge

Smithsons provision was newsworthy in both Europe and the United States when it first became known, and newspapers tried to figure out why this man, who had never visited the United States, might leave the nation his estate. Although he may have had other reasons, one purpose was revenge: My name, Smithson wrote, shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Northumberlands and Percys are extinct and forgotten.

What Now?: 1835-46

When Henry Hungerford died childless in 1835, the country, or at least those governing it, had to decide whether to accept the estate. President Andrew Jackson thought it was a good idea, but was not sure it was constitutional to accept the bequest. When he asked Congress to pass legislation making that possible, he ran into opposition from those who believed, as the Smithsonian accounted, that acceptance of the Smithson bequest on behalf of the entire nation would abridge states rights. The two senators from South Carolina were among the strongest opponents. Senator John C. Calhoun believed Congress had no authority to accept the gift, and Senator William Campbell Preston, while also questioning the constitutionality, complained that [E]very whippersnapper vagabond might think it proper to have his name distinguished in the same way.

Despite such concerns, Congress authorized the acceptance of the bequest on July 1, 1836 and established a select committee to decide what to do with the estate, then worth $515,169. The nation spent the next ten years debating what this new institution should be. The first proposals were for a national universityto train teachers, to teach natural history, to teach the classics, to improve social conditions through applied sciences. Over the years, the debate broadened to create a national museum, an institute to promote science, a national library, an institute to support basic scientific research, or a national observatory.

Finally, on August 10, 1846, legislation containing many of these ideas, but eliminating the national university, was signed by President James K. Polk. The Act To Establish the Smithsonian Institution created a charitable trust, with its administration, independent of the government, the responsibility of the Institutions Secretary and Board of Regents, consisting of three members of the House of Representatives, three Senators, and nine private citizens appointed by a joint resolution of Congress. The vice-president of the United States and the chief justice of the Supreme Court served as ex officio members.

Creating the Institution: 1846-78

The Board of Regents selected Joseph Henry, a prominent physicist, as the first Secretary, or chief executive. Henry envisioned the Smithsonian as a scientific research institute and undertook such activities as organizing volunteer weather observers who telegraphed weather information from around the country to the Smithsonian where scientists collected and recorded the data. Henry also initiated the research report series Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge to overcome the high cost of scientific publication. In 1850 he created the International Exchange Service, a low-cost system whereby American scientists could gain access to scholarly publications from Europe and elsewhere.

The legislation that created the Institution required that the public have access to the Institution. Henry himself conducted public lectures, along with a number of distinguished gentlemen whose character will tend to give due importance to the communications.

In 1855 Henry moved his family into the second floor of the newly completed Smithsonian Building. Designed by James Renwick, Jr., it resembled a 12th century Italian Romanesque castle and housed offices, laboratories, art gallery, science museum, and lecture hall, with living space for resident scientists in the tower. The red brick building quickly became known as The Castle, and when Henrys meteorologists received word of impending storms, they signaled nearby ports from the tower. Henry worked hard to keep his Institution separate from politics so as not to endanger support in Congress. He took no position on Darwins theory of evolution and made sure no flag of any sort flew over the Smithsonian Building during the Civil War.

In 1879 Congress established the Smithsonians Bureau of Ethnology, and its head, Civil War veteran and scientist John Wesley Powell, initiated wide-ranging research in archeology, linguistics, and physical anthropology. Powell was also a director of the U.S. Geological Survey, and according to Ken Ringle in a Washington Post article, The linkage would become something of a model in future years for the Smithsonian. It put science to work for the U.S. government while the quasi-independence of the institution and its strong-willed leaders served to insulate scholars and scientists from the political pressures of the day.

Developing a National Museum: 1850-87

When Henry died in 1878, he was succeeded by his assistant of 28 years, Spencer Fullerton Baird. An avid naturalist and collector, Baird had received the first grant from the Institution for scientific exploration and field research in 1848. Two years later he arrived at the Smithsonian with two railroad cars full of natural specimens, considerably augmenting the Institutions few boxes of minerals and plants.

As Assistant Secretary, he was in charge of the Department of Exploration, and his efforts included teaching a generation of naturalists how to prepare specimens for museum collections. He instructed and supplied naturalists attached to just about any expedition heading west, making the Smithsonian a center for information about the natural history of North America. In 1858 the Congress designated the Smithsonian The National Museum of the United States.

In 1876 the United States celebrated its Centennial with an exposition in Philadelphia. When the exposition closed, 42 boxcars of artifacts were donated to the Smithsonian, ranging from an 1876 locomotive from California to Samuel F.B. Morses original telegraph to military uniforms to 19th century household items. Needing more space for all of these artifacts, the Smithsonian erected the U.S. National Museum (now the Arts and Industries Building), which opened in 1881.

In 1883 the Smithsonian accepted from the National Institute museum at the Patent Office a collection that included George Washington memorabilia. By the end of Bairds tenure as Secretary in 1887, the Smithsonian was far more than an institute for scientific research. The National Museum had more than 2.5 million artifacts and specimens, organized into collections that concentrated on the natural history and people of North America and on the countrys national identity.

Company Perspectives:

The Institution is an independent instrumentality of the United States holding some 140 million artifacts and specimens in its trust for the increase and diffusion of knowledge. It is also a center for research dedicated to public education, national service and scholarship in the arts, sciences, and history.

Animals, Art, and War Machines: 1887-1963

Samuel Langley, a physician, astronomer, and aircraft inventor, succeeded Baird and served until 1906. One of his first actions was to create the Childrens Room at the Castle, claiming Knowledge begins in wonder. During his tenure, the Institution established the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (1890) and the National Zoological Park (1891), the first zoo created with a mission of breeding native wildlife.

Langley left one legacy that was less enriching. For nearly 40 years, the Smithsonian claimed that Langley built the first man carrying plane capable of sustained flight, beating the Wright brothers. Not until 1942, when the Institution corrected its records, did Orville Wright agree to place the original Flyer in the Smithsonian.

In 1910 the third Smithsonian building opened, the National Museum of Natural History, with nearly 11 acres of floor space that also housed offices and art works and was the first Smithsonian museum to be open on Sunday. Charles Freers donation of his priceless collection of American and Oriental art greatly enhanced the Smithsonians reputation and added significantly to its art holdings. The Freer Gallery, built especially for the collection, opened in 1923. The construction was paid for with an additional $1 million Freer contributed for that purpose.

After World War I, tanks, uniforms, and gas masks were placed on exhibit, an indication of the continuing relationship between Smithsonian scientists and the government, with an increasing emphasis on research useful to the military. The scientists investigations over the years ranged from recoilless gun design to rocketry and shark repellent, and their research on tropical islands provided information for the military during the war in the Pacific.

In 1946 Barro Colorado Island in Panama, the first biological reserve in the Americas, became part of the Smithsonian. The reserve had been established in 1923, on an island created when the Panama Canal was built. Scientists conducted long-term studies in tropical biology on the Isthmus and established a marine science program.

Reshaping an Institution: 1964-69

The 20 years in which Sidney Dillon Ripley was Secretary was a period of tremendous growth for the Smithsonian. An ornithologist, Ripley believed that museums should be points of contact with all people, not just some place to visit on a Sunday afternoon or a high school field trip. He also wanted the Smithsonian to be a center of ideas and a company of scholars.

The National Museum of History and Technology (now the Museum of American History) opened in 1964, and Ripley set out to make the Mall between the Smithsonians buildings more inviting to people. At his urging, roads were closed to traffic and replaced with broad paths lined with benches. Ripley also installed a carousel in front of the Castle and, in 1965, held the first Festival of American Folklife, filling the Mall for 12 weeks with exhibits, dancers, food, and music from all over the United States and 35 other countries.

Ripley also pushed the Smithsonians museum offerings beyond the Mall, and outside Washington, DC. In 1967-68 four new Smithsonian museums opened. The Anacostia Museum brought a museum to the people of the southeastern section of the city and examined the African American experience in Washington, DC. The Old Patent Office, a few blocks north of the Mall and once the site of the National Institute museum, became the home of the National Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery. In New York City, Ripley leased the Fifth Avenue Carnegie mansion to house the CooperHewitt, National Design Museum, which became part of the Smithsonian.

Ripley also enhanced the Institutions research activities. He established the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center on Chesapeake Bay in 1965 and, in 1996, renamed Barro Colorado Institute the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

Ripleys Building Boom: 1970-84

The decade of the 1970s saw the fruition of several of Ripleys dreams and efforts. He had worked hard to convince Joseph Hirshhorn to donate his massive collection of modern art to the Smithsonian and to gain support and money to build a museum for the works. At the same time he persuaded President Lyndon Johnson to save the abandoned Renwick Gallery from being torn down and make it once again a public museum. In 1972 the Smithsonian opened the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on the Mall and the Renwick Gallery a block from the White House. Many people laughed at the Hirshhorns bagel-like shape or questioned whether crafts (the focus of the Renwick) were art, but both additions proved to be popular.

Broadening the reach of (and the support for) the Smithsonian, Ripley began publishing the monthly Smithsonian magazine and instituted Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), sending wide varieties of exhibits to communities around the country. He also added the Archives of American Art to the Smithsonian and made appropriations for the National Zoo part of the overall Smithsonian requests to Congress. This latter step increased and stabilized funds for the zoo and made it possible to renovate and add facilities there.

Even as he broadened the scope of the Smithsonian, Ripley did not forget its scientific purposes. In the early 1970s STRI began expanding its work to conduct tropical research throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa. He also increased research at the National Zoo and, in conjunction with Harvard University, established an astrophysical observatory in Arizona.

One of Ripleys major contributions, and the most visited museum in the world, the National Air and Space Museum, opened in 1976. Two years later the Smithsonian took over an existing collection, establishing the National Museum of African Art. Ripley also began the Smithsonians first inventory, an undertaking that would take five years and cost $8 million. The result: fully indexed and cross-referenced computer files identifying some 100 million items, including 114,429 birds eggs, 20 pipe organs, and 14 million postage stamps.

Ripley made a significant impact on the Smithsonian, on Washington, DC, and on the field of museums. During his two decades as Secretary, eight new museums and seven new research or conservation and storage facilities opened, outreach efforts proved successful, the number of visitors more than doubled, and the annual budget grew to more than $300 million, with half coming from Congress.

Changing Financial Picture: 1984-94

Robert McCormick Adams, an archeologist, served as Secretary from 1984 to 1994 and continued to make the Smithsonian an open, inviting place. In 1987 the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian Art opened, and the Anacostia Museum, which had expanded to include the Center for African American History and Culture, moved to a new building. In 1989 Congress established the National Museum of the American Indian and a year later the National Postal Museum. In 1993 the Postal Museums collection of postal history and philatelic items moved to its new home in the historic City Post Office, a Beaux Arts building a few blocks north of the Mall. In 1994 the George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian opened in lower Manhattan, in the historic Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House.

During the 1990s museums across the country faced service cuts and staff reductions as federal money for the arts decreased. Although its federal appropriation actually increased, the money did not keep up with inflation, and the Smithsonian was forced to eliminate extended summer hours, offer buyouts to staff, leave some vacancies unfilled, and change exhibitions less often. Many museums, including the Smithsonian, turned to corporate sponsors for projects and exhibits.

The ability to raise money and extensive management skills were critical considerations in the selection of Ira Michael Heyman as the tenth Secretary of the Smithsonian in 1994. The retired chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley and a lawyer, Heymans selection broke the tradition of the Secretary being a scientist.

1994 to the Present

Heyman spent five years as Secretary, successfully steering the institution through financial difficulties, unifying its management structure, and improving relationships with Congress. He generated several very large gifts and initiated a capital campaign. He also promoted the Smithsonian through extensive exchange programs and an exceedingly popular web site. But it was a less than tranquil period, as controversies erupted over various exhibitions ranging from the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, to a forum at the 50th anniversary of Israel.

The issues of what and how things were displayed at a museum was not new, nor was it limited to the Smithsonian Institution. At its core were differences about the role of public museums: to present one or different viewpoints, to display revered objects or explain (interpret) history. Pressure for the Smithsonian and other public institutions to present noncontro-versial exhibits was seen by some as appropriate and others as censorship. The growing dependence on corporate funding only served to expand the voices influencing such decisions. Finances and politics had been intertwined in the Smithsonians role since the institution was established. Heymans successors each would make their mark on that relationship and on The Nations Attic itself.

Principal Museums

Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture; Arts and Industries Building; Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum; Freer Gallery of Art; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; National Air and Space Museum; National Museum of American Art; National Museum of American History; National Museum of the American Indian; National Museum of Natural History; National Portrait Gallery; National Postal Museum; National Zoological Park; Renwick Gallery; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; Smithsonian Institution Building, [principal-research-facilities] Archives of American Art; Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies; Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education; Conservation and Research Center; Marine Station at Link Port; Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory; Smithsonian Environmental Research Center; Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute; Center for Latino Initiatives.

Further Reading

Arnett, Elsa C., 150 Years at the Smithsonian, News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.), August 10, 1996, p. Dl.

Bonner, Alice, Smithsonian Finds Its Attic Full of Treasure, Washington Post, Augus t 27, 1981, p. Al.

Davis, Lou, Who Was on First, First?, Air Transport World, January 1993, p. 85.

Forgey, Benjamin, Ripleys Believe It and Build, Washington Post, September 15, 1984, p. Cl.

From Smithson to Smithsonian: The Birth of an Institution,, 1998.

Goldberger, Paul, Historical Shows on Trial: Who Judges?, New York Times, February 11, 1996, p. Bl.

Goode, George Brown, Biographical Sketch of Spencer Fullerton Baird, Marine Fisheries Review (U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington, DC), January 1, 1996, p. 40.

Mulligan, Kate, Nations Venerable Institution, Washington Times, April 25, 1996, p. M4.

Page, Jake, From Back-Lot Menagerie to Nascent BioPark in Only a Hundred Years, Smithsonian, July 1989, p. 26.

Parks, Edward, Secretary S. Dillon Ripley Retires After Twenty Years of Innovation, Smithsonian, September 1984, p. 76.

Ringle, Ken, Smithsonian: The Greatest of the Mall, Washington Post, August 10, 1996, p. Al.

The Smithsonian Institution Fact Sheet, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, March 1998.

Trescott, Jacqueline, Heyman To Leave Smithsonian, Washington Post, January 23, 1999, p. Al.

Van Dyne, Larry, Storming the Castle, Washingtonian, August 1994.

Wellborn, Stanley N., New Guard for Treasures at Smithsonian, U.S. News & World Report, September 24, 1984, p. 68.

Wiencek, Henry, Smithsonian Institution, in The Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: Virginia and the Capital Region, New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989, p. 47.

Ellen D. Wernick

Smithsonian Institution

views updated May 23 2018


SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, an establishment dedicated to research, education, and national service to science, the arts, and humanities. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., it was chartered by Congress in 1846 pursuant to the will of the Englishman James Smithson (1765–1829). In 1826, Smithson, who was the illegitimate son of Sir Hugh Smithson, Duke of Northumberland, and Elizabeth Keate Macie, descended from Henry VII, bequeathed his fortune, amounting to about $550,000 (a considerable sum for those days), to "the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Smith-son's motivations for this unusual bequest are conjectural, but several influences may have been involved: disillusionment due to the circumstances of his birth, which, in Britain, barred him from certain privileges and inheritances; his keen interest in science (he was an Oxford graduate, a competent chemist, and a member of the Royal Society); his faith in America, generated perhaps from his friendship with Americans traveling in Europe, although he himself never visited the United States; and perhaps the general revolutionary temper of the times, which impelled him to do something original for the benefit of humankind and make his name remembered long after, as he said, "the names of the Northumberlands and Percys are extinct and forgotten."

When, after much debate, Congress accepted the gift, there began a long argument as to what form the institution should take in order to conform most clearly with Smithson's broad prescription. The format that finally evolved and was enacted on 10 August 1846 was due in large part to John Quincy Adams, who was then back in Congress following his presidency and whose articulate championing of science and education was most effective.

The Smithsonian derives its support both from appropriations from Congress and from private endowments, of which Smithson's gift was the nucleus. It is considered an independent establishment in the role of a ward of the U.S. government, the trustee. It is governed by a board of regents made up of the vice-president and chief justice of the United States (ex officio) and three U.S. senators, three representatives, and six citizens named by Congress. The regents elect one of their number as chancellor and choose a secretary, who is the executive officer, or director, of the institution. Since its founding the Smithsonian has had eleven secretaries: Joseph Henry, professor and physicist at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), noted for his research in electromagnetism, who served from 1846 until his death in 1878; Spencer Fullerton Baird, biologist, secretary from 1878 until his death in 1887; Samuel Pierpont Langley, astronomer and aviation pioneer, from 1887 to 1906; Charles Doolittle Walcott, from 1907 to 1927; Charles Greeley Abbot, astrophysicist, from 1928 to 1944; Alexander Wetmore, biologist, from 1945 to 1952; Leonard Carmichael, psychologist, from 1953 to 1964; S. Dillon Ripley, zoologist, from 1964 to 1984; Robert McCormick Adams from 1984 to 1994; Michael Heyman from 1994 to 1999; and Lawrence Small beginning in 2000.

Henry's original program for the Smithsonian and its plan of organization were based on his interpretation of how best to "increase" and "diffuse" knowledge in order "to carry out the design of the testator." To increase knowledge he proposed to "stimulate men of talent to make original researches, by offering rewards for memoirs containing new truths" and "to appropriate a portion of income for particular researches, under the direction of suitable persons." To diffuse knowledge it was proposed to "publish a series of periodical reports on the progress of different branches of knowledge" and "to publish occasionally separate treatises on subjects of general interest." These objectives have continued to guide the activities of the institution. But this simplicity of design did not last long, and the institution proliferated as Congress began assigning the institution jobs to do and "bureaus" to administer. In 1879, a large rambling structure adjoining the Smithsonian was begun to house exhibits for the National Museum, an outgrowth of the Centennial Exposition of 1876 at Philadelphia. Eventually, the National Museum came under the administration of the Smithsonian. Over the years, the Smithsonian has assembled under its wings yet more museums, art galleries, and other branches, making it perhaps the largest museum and cultural complex in the world. The Smithsonian occupies several buildings flanking the Mall between Fifth and Fourteenth streets and other buildings in several other parts of the city and in a number of places outside Washington, including New York City; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Panama.

The Smithsonian includes sixteen museums. Nine of these are located on the National Mall. They are: the Smithsonian Institution Building, known as the Castle; the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art, both dedicated to Asian art; the Arts and Industries Building; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; the National Air and Space Museum; the National Museum of African Art; the National Museum of American History; and the National Museum of Natural History, the oldest of the Smithsonian's branches. The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum have, since 1968, occupied the Old Patent Office Building. The Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, the National Zoological Park, the National Postal Museum, and the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum are located elsewhere in Washington, D.C. The Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian are located in New York City. A National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., is due to open on the Mall in the early twenty-first century. The Smithsonian also oversees eight research centers: the Archives of American Art, the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the Conservation and Research Center, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the Center for Materials Research and Education, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The International Exchange Service was initiated in 1850 by Baird and Henry to facilitate the international exchange of scientific and other scholarly publications. There are also three agencies technically under the aegis of the Smithsonian but administered by separate boards of trustees: the National Gallery of Art (established 1941), the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (opened 1971), and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (1968).

The Smithsonian museums, embracing all fields of science, technology, and the arts, are famous for their many unique objects on display. In addition to such showpieces as Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, the First Ladies' inaugural ball gowns, the Hope Diamond, Benjamin Franklin's printing press, the original "star-spangled banner," and the giant model of the blue whale, the dozens of exhibit halls throughout the museums display much of humanity's knowledge of the earth and human civilization and culture. There are also vast study collections, numbering in the millions of objects and specimens, that form the basis of the research conducted not only by the large staff of Smithsonian scientists but also by students and researchers in history, technology, and the physical and natural sciences. The institution is equally famous for its worldwide exploration programs, which were initiated by Henry and Baird.

The first Smithsonian publication, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, was issued in 1848, and since that time there have appeared under the Smithsonian imprint (now called the Smithsonian Press) thousands of books, pamphlets, catalogs, bulletins, and periodicals in all branches of science, art, and technology. Most of them are scholarly publications, but a few are popular in nature. Smithsonian publications—some financed by government funds and some by the institution's private funds—are widely distributed to libraries, research institutions, and students. Since 1970, in conjunction with a subsidiary organization, the Smithsonian Associates, the institution has published a popular magazine, Smithsonian.

Since the early 1960s, the Smithsonian has expanded its activities, particularly in the field of public education, in an effort to identify the institution more closely with the academic world and with modern educational and research trends. Each of the museums and research centers now includes an Education Department, and, through a program dubbed Smithsonian Affiliates, the Smithsonian has arranged cooperative agreements with museums across the country. Smithsonian Productions creates and manages electronic media for the institution, and ongoing programs of lectures, films, workshops, tours, demonstrations, and performances allow daily access to the "nation's attic."


Bello, Mark. The Smithsonian Institution, a World of Discovery: An Exploration of Behind-the-Scenes Research in the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.

Goode, G. Brown, ed. The Smithsonian Institution, 1846–1896. The History of Its First Half Century. Washington, D.C., 1897; New York: Arno Press, 1980.

Oehser, Paul Henry. Sons of Science: The Story of the Smithsonian Institution and Its Leaders. New York: H. Schuman, 1949.

———. The Smithsonian Institution. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1983.

Paul H.Oehser/f. b.

See alsoAmerican Association for the Advancement of Science ; Archives ; Federal Agencies ; Foundations, Endowed ; Observatories, Astronomical ; Science Museums .

National Museum of the American Indian

views updated Jun 08 2018


NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN. The National Museum of the American Indian of the Smithsonian Institution (NMAI) began as the private collection of a wealthy New York banker, George Gustav Heye (1874–1957). In 1903 Heye began a half century of voracious acquisition of Native American artifacts, during which he dispatched agents throughout the Western Hemisphere to obtain objects and collections from Native peoples. In the first decade, Heye worked in collaboration with the University Museum in Philadelphia and with Franz Boas at Columbia University. In 1916, however, Heye established, over Boas's strenuous objections, his independent institution in Manhattan: the Heye Foundation and the Museum of the American Indian. The goal of the new museum was as simple as it was comprehensive: "the preservation of everything pertaining to our American tribes." Over the next fifteen years Heye established a publication series, an anthropological library, a storage facility in the Bronx, and a research and collecting agenda in archaeology and ethnography.

The death of two of Heye's major benefactors in 1928 and the onset of economic depression a year later effectively ended Heye's ambitious program of acquisition. Over the next twenty-five years Heye continued collecting and sponsoring expeditions, but on a greatly reduced level. After his death in 1957, Heye's institution fell into disrepair; when the museum's sad state came to public attention in the mid-1970s, nearly fifteen years of debate and negotiation ensued. This resulted finally, in 1990, in the transfer of the Heye artifact collection, archives, and library in their entirety to the Smithsonian Institution, where they constitute the core of the National Museum of the American Indian. The transfer also stipulated that human remains and funerary objects from the Heye collection be repatriated to Native peoples where possible.

Building upon its core collection of nearly one million artifacts, the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian preserves, studies, and exhibits the histories and cultures of Native American peoples; the NMAI also works in close collaboration with Native peoples to protect, sustain, and reaffirm traditional beliefs and encourage artistic expression.

There are several NMAI facilities. Opened in 1994, the George Gustav Heye Center of NMAI, located at the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in lower Manhattan, is an educational and exhibition facility with public programs of music, dance, and film. The Cultural Resources Center outside Washington, D.C., in Suitland, Maryland, invites Native and non-Native scholars to utilize its library and archival collections. The central facility—the Smithsonian's last museum on the Mall—was scheduled to open in 2003 and serve as the major exhibition space, as well as a venue for ceremony and education. Finally, a "virtual museum" is available through the NMAI Web sites.


Force, Roland W. Politics and the Museum of the American Indian: The Heye and the Mighty. Honolulu, Hawaii: Mechas Press, 1999.

"The History of the Museum." Indian Notes and Monographs, Miscellaneous Series No. 55. New York: Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, 1956.

Kidwell, Clara Sue. "Every Last Dishcloth: The Prodigious Collecting of George Gustav Heye." In Collecting Native America, 1870–1960. Edited by Shepard Krech III and Barbara A. Hail. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999, 232–258.

National Museum of the American Indian. Home page at

National Museum of the American Indian Act, Public Law 101– 185, 101st Congress (28 November 1989).

Wallace, Kevin. "Slim-Shin's Monument." New Yorker (19 November 1960).

Curtis M.Hinsley

See alsoNative Americans .

Smithsonian Institution

views updated May 14 2018

Smithsonian Institution

Established by an Act of Congress in 1846 with the bequest of English scientist James Smithson, the Smithsonian Institution is a research center that holds some one hundred million artifacts and specimens in sixteen museums and galleries. The mission of the Institution includes public education, national service, and scholarship in the arts, sciences, and history. Artifacts held by the Smithsonian include the Wright Brothers' 1903 Flyer, the Hope Diamond (the world's largest deep blue diamond), the Star Spangled Banner, Judy Garland's Red Slippers from The Wizard of Oz, Harrison Ford's fedora and leather jacket from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Archie Bunker's chair and Fonzie's leather jacket from the television shows All in the Family and Happy Days, respectively. Duke Ellington's papers are housed in the Smithsonian and the Institution also owns the Folkways Records back catalog.

Museums and galleries of the Smithsonian include the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of African Art, the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of American Art, and the National Portrait Gallery, all of which are in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian-run Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian are in New York City. The Smithsonian is also responsible for the National Zoo and a number of scientific research institutes.

Many of the museums are located on the Mall in Washington and a visit to the Capitol seems to require an obligatory visit to at least one of these buildings. From April through October the various Washington locales of the Smithsonian are packed with visitors. One summer highlight is the Festival of Folklife, which explores the diversity of American and world cultures, that takes place on the Mall in late June and early July.

In 1970 the Institution launched its own magazine, Smithsonian, which carries general readership articles on the arts, the environment, sciences, and popular culture. The magazine has a readership approaching eight million. Another magazine, Air & Space/Smithsonian, was created as an extension of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. It examines the culture of aviation and space.

In 1995 the Smithsonian launched its home page ( on the World Wide Web and has since averaged over four million "hits" per month. The site has grown to contain a wealth of information on the various activities and collections of the Smithsonian.

In the 1990s the Smithsonian engendered considerable controversy with its exhibition, The West as America, at the National Museum of American Art and its proposed Enola Gay exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These exhibitions questioned received versions of history and the outrage generated broad public debates about history, culture, and the role of academics and museums.

The Smithsonian Institution is a repository of American cultural artifacts. The diversity of its collections and activities place it at the center of public understanding of American history and culture.

—Ian Gordon

Further Reading:

America's Smithsonian: Celebrating 150 Years. Washington, D.C.,Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.

Conaway, John. The Smithsonian: 150 Years of Adventure, Discovery, and Wonder. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

"History and the Public: What Can We Handle? A Roundtable about History after the Enola Gay Controversy." Journal of American History. Vol. 82, No. 3, 1995, 1029-1144.

Smithsonian Institution

views updated May 21 2018

Smithsonian Institution US independent trust, based in Washington, D.C. Created in 1846, the Institution funds research, publishes the results of explorations and investigations, and preserves for reference more than 65 million items of scientific, cultural, and historical interest. Created in 1846, the Institution funds research, publishes the results of explorations and investigations, and preserves for reference over 65 million items of scientific, cultural and historical interest.

Smithsonian Institution

views updated May 21 2018

Smithsonian Institution a US foundation for education and scientific research in Washington DC, opened in 1846 and now responsible for administering many museums, art galleries, and other establishments. It originated in a £100,000 bequest in the will of the English chemist and mineralogist James Smithson (1765–1829).