Smithsonian Institution

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The Smithsonian Institution Building or "Castle" on the National Mall serves as the Institution's headquarters.
The Smithsonian Institution Building or "Castle" on the National Mall serves as the Institution's headquarters.

The Smithsonian Institution is a educational and research institution and associated museum complex, with most of its facilities in Washington, D.C. It consists of 19 museums and seven research centers, and has 142 million items in its collections. It is administered and funded by the government of the United States.

A monthly magazine published by the Smithsonian Institution is also named Smithsonian.



The Smithsonian Institution was founded for the promotion and dissemination of knowledge by a bequest to the United States by the British scientist James Smithson (17651829). In Smithson's will, he stated that should his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, die without heirs, the Smithson estate would go to the United States of America for establishing 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 100,000 gold sovereigns, or $500,000 U.S. dollars ($9,235,277 in 2005 U.S. dollars after inflation).

Act of Congress: Eight years later, Congress passed an act establishing the Smithsonian Institution, a typically American hybrid public/private partnership, and the act was signed into law on August 10, 1846 by James Polk. (See 20 U.S.C. § 41 (Ch. 178, Sec. 1, 9 Stat. 102).) The bill was drafted by Indiana Democratic Congressman Robert Dale Owen, a Socialist and son of Robert Owen, the father of the cooperative movement.

The castellated architecture of the Smithsonian Institution Building on the National Mall has made it known informally as "The Castle". It was built by architect James Renwick, Jr. and completed in 1855. Many of the other buildings are also historical and architectural landmarks.

The voyage of the US Navy circumnavigating the globe between 1838 and 1842 amassed thousands of animal specimens, a herbarium of 50,000 examples, shells and minerals, tropical birds, jars of seawater and ethnographic specimens from the South Pacific.

The military and civilian surveys in the American West assembled many Native American artifacts as well as natural history specimens.

The Institution became a magnet for natural scientists from 1857 to 1866, who formed a group called the Megatherium Club.

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


The Smithsonian Institution is established as a trust by act of Congress, and it is functionally and legally a body of the federal government. More than two-thirds of the Smithsonian's workforce of some 6,300 persons are employees of the federal government. The Smithsonian is represented by attorneys from the United States Department of Justice in litigation, and money judgments against the Smithsonian are also paid out of the federal treasury.

Federal courts have furthermore concluded that the Smithsonian is part of the United States government within the meaning of such statutes as the Tucker Act and the Federal Tort Claims Act. It is also treated as part of the United States government when defending against copyright infringement claims, which means that such actions must be brought before the United States Court of Federal Claims.1.

The nominal head of the Institution is the Chancellor, an office which has always been held by the current Chief Justice of the United States. The affairs of the Smithsonian are conducted by its 17-member board of regents, eight members of which constitute a quorum for the conduct of business. Eight of the regents are United States officials: the Vice President (one of his few official legal duties) and the Chief Justice of the United States, three United States Senators appointed by the Vice President in his capacity as President of the Senate, and three Members of the U.S. House of Representatives appointed by the Speaker of the House. The remaining nine regents are "persons other than Members of Congress," who are appointed by joint resolution of Congress. Regents are allowed reimbursement for their expenses in connection with attendance at meetings, but their service as regents is uncompensated. The day-to-day operations of the Smithsonian are supervised by a salaried "Secretary" chosen by the board of regents.

Secretaries of the Smithsonian

  1. Joseph Henry, 18461878
  2. Spencer Fullerton Baird, 1878–1887
  3. Samuel Pierpont Langley, 1887–1906
  4. Charles Doolittle Walcott, 19071927
  5. Charles Greeley Abbot, 19281944
  6. Alexander Wetmore, 1944–1952
  7. Leonard Carmichael, 19531964
  8. Sidney Dillon Ripley, 1964–1984
  9. Robert McCormick Adams, 1984–1994
  10. I. Michael Heyman, 1994–1999
  11. Lawrence M. Small, 2000

See The Secretaries of the Smithsonian Institution.

Smithsonian museums

Smithsonian research centers

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


*Note 1: O'Rourke v. Smithsonian Inst. Press, 399 F.3d 113 (2nd Cir. 2005), cert. denied, No. 04-1481, 2005 U.S. LEXIS 5550 (U.S. Oct. 3, 2005) (holding that Smithsonian Institution included in definition of "the United States" for purposes of copyright infringement claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1498(b)). This court decision also summarizes the history of the Institution, the composition of the Board of Regents, its interrelationship with the federal government, and prior court rulings regarding the Institution's treatment as a body of the government under various federal laws.

External links

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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 0060002417
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