The Smithsonian Institution—the world’s largest museum and research complex—includes 19 museums and galleries and the National Zoological Park. Currently, the total number of artifacts, works of art and natural science specimens in the Smithsonian’s collections is approximately 155 million. The bulk of this material—more than 145.8 million specimens and objects—is part of the National Museum of Natural History. In addition, Smithsonian collections include 162,000 cubic feet of archival material and 2.1 million library volumes.
Among the vast collections are irreplaceable national icons, examples of everyday life and scientific material vital to the study of the world’s scientific and cultural heritage. The objects in Smithsonian collections range from insects and meteorites to locomotives and spacecraft. The scope is staggering—from a magnificent collection of ancient Chinese bronzes to the Star-Spangled Banner; from a 3.5 billion-year-old fossil to the space shuttle Discovery; from the ruby slippers featured in The Wizard of Oz to presidential paintings and memorabilia. Collection items vary in size, from the Concorde at 202 feet to the Fairfly wasp at .0067 of an inch. The largest single collection is Natural History’s invertebrate zoology collection with more than 49.8 million specimens, ranging from corals and vent worms to parasites and squid.
Only a small portion of the Smithsonian’s collections (estimated at less than 1%) is on display in the museums at any given time. Many collections are acquired and solely used for research purposes utilized by scientists and scholars from all over the world. Whether they are acquired from the depths of the oceans, tropical rainforests, archaeological sites, everyday life, or even extra-terrestrially, Smithsonian collections are preserved and maintained for public exhibition, education, and study.
Archives of American Art—21,514 cubic feet archival materials
Collection of more than 21 million items includes letters, writings, scrapbooks, sketchbooks, photographs, financial records, film and primary sources amassed or created by artists, critics, collectors, art dealers and others. Also includes an oral history collection of more than 2,200 interviews of art world figures and 6,200 collections of personal papers and organizational records documenting the history of the visual arts in the United States.
Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum—215,164 objects
Collections are international in scope and span more than 2,000 years, dating from China’s Han dynasty to the present with holdings of furniture, metalwork, glass, ceramics, jewelry, woodwork, embroidery, woven and printed textiles, lace, and wallcoverings, with areas of interest in graphic design, industrial design and architecture. The museum also has one of the largest collections of drawings in the United States and a large collection of prints, including examples of architectural drawings, advertising, and fashion, theater, and interior design.
Freer | Sackler Galleries—41,414 objects and 2,123 cubic feet archival materials
The collections of the Freer Gallery of Art spans 6,000 years and many different cultures, dating from Neolithic times to the early 20th century, reflecting the taste of its founder, Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919). Works of art from Asia (representing the creative traditions of China, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, and the West and examples of ancient Egyptian and early Christian art) include paintings, sculptures, metal ware, ceramics, manuscripts and lacquer ware. The museum also houses 19th- and early 20th-century American art, including the world’s largest number of works by James McNeill Whistler and the famed Peacock Room.
The collections of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery include some 1,000 works of Asian art (early Chinese bronzes and jades, Chinese paintings and lacquer ware, ancient Near Eastern ceramics and metal works, and sculpture from South and Southeast Asia) donated by Arthur M. Sackler (1913–1987). The collections have expanded and now include the Vever Collection; 19th- and 20th-century Japanese prints and contemporary porcelain; Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean paintings; arts of rural India; contemporary Chinese ceramics; photography; and the Robert O. Muller collection of 19th- and 20th-century woodblock prints.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden—12,364 objects
Collection of modern and contemporary art—paintings, sculptures and works on paper—includes a nucleus of works given or bequeathed to the Smithsonian by founding donor Joseph H. Hirshhorn (1899-1981). Works of art of American and European cubism, Social Realism, Surrealism, Geometric Abstraction, and Expressionism trace modern art past the mid-20th century to contemporary works from Pop art of the 1960s to recent acquisitions by emerging artists working in a variety of media.
National Museum of African Art—10,369 objects and 1,169 cubic feet archival materials
Collection contains objects dating from antiquity to the present, including traditional masks and figures, textiles, costumes and jewelry, furniture and household objects, and architectural elements, as well as modern sculpture, paintings, prints, and ceramics. The collection also includes the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, with more than 300,000 photographic prints and transparencies of African art and field photographs depicting life and art in Africa, 100,000 feet of unedited film footage, and videos and documentary films on African art.
National Portrait Gallery—21,212 objects and 1,220 cubic feet archival materials
Collection comprises paintings, prints, sculptures, photographs drawings, and new media of Americans who have made important contributions to the nation, from pre-colonial times to today. The collections hold more than 1,600 portraits of the U.S. presidents, some 5,400 glass-plate negatives from the studios of Mathew Brady, and original artwork from over 2,100 Time magazine covers.
Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery—43,417 objects and 19,970 cubic feet archival materials
The museum’s collection features American art from all periods—Colonial to contemporary—in all media, including painting, sculpture, works on paper, photography, and time-based media art. More than 7,000 artists are represented in the collection, including major masters, and contains the largest collection of New Deal art and exceptional collections of contemporary craft, American impressionist paintings and masterpieces from the Gilded Age. The Renwick Gallery features 20th-century American crafts.
History and Culture Collections
Anacostia Community Museum—3,380 objects and 1,500 cubic feet archival materials
Collections include historical artifacts, works of art, photographs, documents and paper records, and audiovisual media that explore and describe local, regional and national communities, including extensive research and documentation material of the history and community life of the east-of-the-river DC neighborhoods.
Castle Collection—3,475 objects
The collection focuses on 19th-century decorative arts, furniture and furnishings, and objects that support the interpretation of the Smithsonian (Castle) and Arts and Industries buildings.
Center for Folklife and Cultural History—4,660 cubic feet archival materials
The center is home to the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, a public resource named for the founding director of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Collections are global in perspective, covering world ethnic performance traditions, spoken word recordings, sounds of science and nature, occupational folklore, and family folklore. The collections are strong in American, and more specifically Euro-American, African American, Caribbean and Native American musical and performance traditions.
National Air and Space Museum—69,291 objects and 17,762 cubic feet archival materials
Collection includes full-size planes, missiles, satellites, spacecraft and thousands of smaller items like engines, space suits, instruments, balloons, memorabilia, clothing, artwork, awards and models documenting the history of aviation and space flight, including historic artifacts such as the 1903 Wright Flyer, Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia, and the space shuttle Discovery. Objects range in size from Saturn V rockets to jetliners to gliders to space helmets to microchips. The archival collection includes photographs, manuscripts, technical drawings, documents, film and oral histories spanning the history of flight.
National Museum of American History—more than 1.8 million objects and 16,500 cubic feet archival materials (in the following divisions):
- Armed Forces History—Collections document the history of the men, women, and technology of the armed forces of the United States, the Japanese American incarceration experience during World War II and the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
- Culture and the Arts—Collections document the history of music, dance, theater, film, broadcast media, sports, recreation, popular culture, photographic history, printing and the graphic arts.
- Home and Community Life—Collections document home furnishings, the production and consumption of food and beverages, clothing, religion, community organizations, patterns of migration and immigration and education. Family structure, gender identity, life cycles, childhood and the development of leisure time are examined, along with the roles of technology, invention and play in home and community life.
- Medicine and Science—Collections document the material culture of the biological, medical and physical sciences in the areas of the history of medicine and health, dentistry, pharmacy, psychology, disability, public health, biotechnology, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, meteorology, navigation, surveying, nuclear power, materials science, science education, and the environment.
- Political History—Collections document the history of American democracy and the political principles, practices, and institutions that have shaped the political culture of the United States, including changing definitions of citizenship and political rights; contested political ideologies; governmental policies and their impact; the role of political parties; elections; protest and reform movements; varied and changing expressions of nationalism; predictive opinion and media effects; and traditional political techniques and forms of communication.
- Work and Industry—Artifacts, documents, photographs and oral histories relate to work and industry in the United States, with a focus on agriculture, natural resources, timekeeping, retail, mining, engineering, electricity, telephone, telegraph, industry and transportation.
- Archives Center—Archival records in many media and formats complement the museum’s collections: personal papers, business records, graphic materials, trade literature, photographs, information and reference files, recordings, and motion-picture films and videotapes.
National Museum of the American Indian—848,357 objects
Collection represents the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere from the Arctic Circle to the tip of Tierra del Fuego and spans more than 12,000 years of Native heritage. Ranging from ancient Paleo-Indian points to contemporary fine arts, the collections include works of aesthetic, religious, and historical significance as well as articles produced for everyday use. Current holdings include all major culture areas of the Western Hemisphere, representing virtually all tribes in the United States, most of those of Canada, and a significant number of cultures from Middle and South America and the Caribbean. Collection includes fine carvings in wood, horn and stone from the Northwest Coast of North America; dance masks from the American Southwest; textiles from Peru, Mexico and the Navajo area of the United States; basketry from the American Southwest and Southeast and from Peru; pre-Columbian gold work from Mexico and Peru; jade objects made by the Olmec and the Maya; Inuit carved masks; Aztec mosaics; feather work from the Amazon; and painted hides and garments from the North American Plains.
National Museum of African American History and Culture—35,610 objects and 591 cubic feet archival materials
Collection includes works of art, historical artifacts, photographs, moving images, archival documents, electronic data, audio recordings, books and manuscripts that document the history and development of the African American experience in its many aspects. Collections cover such subjects as the era of slavery, the period of Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance, and the civil rights movement, and that reflect the historical and cultural links of African Americans to the African diaspora such as in the Caribbean, Latin America and Canada.
National Postal Museum—more than 6 million objects
Collection is the largest and most comprehensive collection of stamps and philatelic material in the world—including prestigious U.S. and international postal issues and specialized collections, archival postal documents and three-dimensional objects that trace the evolution of the postal services.
Smithsonian Institution Archives—41,454 cubic feet of archival material
The Archives contains the official records—paper and digital—of the Smithsonian, as well as personal papers, special collections, records of professional societies, and oral/video histories of the Smithsonian.
Natural Science Collections
National Museum of Natural History—more than 145.8 million objects/specimens and 18,000 cubic feet archival materials
Collection is the world’s most extensive collection of natural history specimens and human artifacts, ranging from fossilized pollen to bones of Tyrannosaurus rex, algal samples to a slab of a giant sequoia tree, tiny crustaceans to giant squid, DNA samples to whale skulls, ancient spear points to Chinese shoes, and the Hope Diamond to Moon rocks (in the following departments):
- Anthropology—Artifacts and specimens representing cultures from around the world; contains one of the largest collections of North American Indian artifacts, including baskets, pottery, textiles and utilitarian objects
- Botany—Algae, flowering plants, pressed specimens and microscopic plants
- Entomology—Butterflies and moths, mosquitoes, beetles; collection includes all 30 of the known orders of insects
- Invertebrate Zoology—Marine animals, including sponges, crayfish, mollusks, worms and shrimp
- Mineral Sciences—Gems, minerals, rocks and meteorites
- Paleobiology—Fossil flora and fauna, sharks’ teeth and microscopic organisms on slides
- Vertebrate Zoology—Mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, amphibians; collection includes birds’ eggs and nests, fur pelts and elephant skulls
National Zoological Park—3,134 animals
The Zoo’s living collection represents nearly 400 species, of which about a quarter are endangered or threatened. Species include mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. The Zoo’s Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, located at Front Royal, Virginia, is a breeding preserve for rare and endangered species.
Smithsonian Gardens— 30,300 objects/specimens and 891 cubic feet of archival material
Collections include over 100,000 photographic images documenting historic and contemporary American gardens, antique and contemporary garden furniture and ornaments, seed boxes and seed packets, advertising cards, posy holders, floral frames, related to the florist trade, and a significant collection of over 8,000 orchids specimens, both species and hybrids.
Smithsonian Libraries—more than 2.1 million library volumes and 11,700 cubic feet archival materials
The Libraries’ collections includes books and manuscripts, along with over 400,000 pieces of ephemera, microfilm, photographic collections and audio visual material, housed in 21 specialized research libraries in Washington, Maryland, New York and Panama. The libraries span the range of scientific and cultural pursuits of humanity from aerospace, anthropology, and art history to business history and botany, cultural history, design, philately, zoology and much, much more.
How Items Are Added to the Smithsonian Collections
The acquisition of collections is fundamental and critical to the mission and vitality of the Smithsonian. Most collection items are donated to the Smithsonian by individuals and private collectors or through transfers from federal agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the U.S. Postal Service and others. Thousands of items also come to the Smithsonian through field expeditions, bequests, purchases, and exchanges with other museums, and, in the case of living plants and animals, by propagation and birth. Collections must and do continuously grow to support the Smithsonian’s mission and programmatic goals. Ever-evolving collections ensure the ability of the Smithsonian to tell and share our nation’s continuing story in all its dimensions—across history, art, science, and culture. They contribute to global innovation and document the world’s forever changing cultural and scientific heritage from one generation to the next.
In doing so, the Smithsonian requires responsible, disciplined acquisition of collections based on stringent acquisition evaluation criteria. In order to provide responsible management of the collections, potential acquisitions undergo a rigorous selection and review process. The following criteria are considered during the review and evaluation of potential acquisitions: consistency with the museum’s mission, programmatic goals, and collections plan; the quality, size, physical condition, intellectual value, and significance of the collection item; the documentation of legal title and provenance; the potential for use in exhibition, education, and research; and the ability and costs to provide appropriate management, care and accessibility of the collection item, including conservation, long-term preservation, digitization, and storage. Because of this rigorous selection process, the Institution acquires only a small percentage of what is offered to the Smithsonian.
For an up-to-date list of Smithsonian collections visit http://collections.si.edu/search/.
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Linda St. Thomas