The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum, education and research complex, with 19 museums and the National Zoological Park (see list below).
- Anacostia Community Museum
- Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
- Arts and Industries Building
- Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (New York City)
- Freer Gallery of Art
- Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- National Air and Space Museum
- National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (Chantilly, Virginia)
- National Museum of African American History and Culture
- National Museum of African Art
- National Museum of American History
- National Museum of the American Indian
- National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center (New York City)
- National Museum of Natural History
- National Portrait Gallery
- National Postal Museum
- Renwick Gallery
- Smithsonian American Art Museum
- Smithsonian Institution Building (“Castle”)
Congress passed legislation in late December 2020 establishing two new museums at the Smithsonian: the National Museum of the American Latino and the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum. The Smithsonian is in early planning stages for both.
The Smithsonian’s federal funding for fiscal year 2021 (Oct. 1, 2020–Sept. 30, 2021) is $1 billion. The Institution is 62% federally funded (a combination of the congressional appropriation and federal grants and contracts).
In addition to the federal contribution, the Smithsonian has trust or non-federal funds, which include contributions from private sources (endowments; donations from individuals, corporations and foundations; and memberships) and revenues from the Smithsonian Enterprises operation (magazines, mail-order catalog, product development, entertainment, shops, restaurants and concessions).
The museums were closed March 14, 2020, and remained closed for all but a few weeks in 2020 due to the pandemic. Some of the museums in Washington are scheduled to open in the spring.
Admission to all Smithsonian museums in Washington is free. A visitor’s center is located in the Castle. There were about 22 million visits to the museums and the National Zoo in 2019.
Admission to all Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., is free. The museums are open seven days a week. (The Smithsonian is closed on Christmas Day.) Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. The Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery (located in downtown Washington) hours are 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. An information center is located in the Smithsonian Institution Building (“Castle”). There were more than 22 million visits to the museums and National Zoo in 2019.
- Archives of American Art—An organization that acquires and preserves documents and memorabilia of American artists, collectors, critics and art societies.
- Museum Conservation Institute—Located at the Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland, the center carries out research in the technical study, analysis and conservation methods of museum objects and related materials.
- Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute—This 3,200-acre wooded area in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains (Front Royal, Virginia) is a breeding preserve and study center for the National Zoo’s rare and endangered animals.
- Smithsonian Marine Station—Scientists working at this research center located in Fort Pierce, Florida, study estuarine and marine environments along Florida’s east coastline and adjacent ocean shelves, seeking basic information about natural and man-made causes of stress and environmental change. The station is operated by the National Museum of Natural History.
- Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory—Headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory is a partner with the Harvard College Observatory in the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, where more than 300 scientists are engaged in a broad program of research in astronomy, astrophysics, earth and space sciences, and science education. The observatory maintains field facilities in Arizona and Hawaii for ground-based astronomy.
- Smithsonian Environmental Research Center—Staff and visiting researchers at this Edgewater, Maryland, facility near the Chesapeake Bay study land-water relationships and plan programs to increase awareness of ecological systems and to determine how they are affected by humans.
- Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute—Scientists from the Smithsonian and all over the world study the evolution and behavior of tropical organisms at various facilities of this institute in the Republic of Panama.
- Smithsonian Libraries and Archives—The most comprehensive museum library system in the world, Libraries supports the vital research of the Institution as well as the work of scientists and scholars around the world. The archives hold an estimated 50,000 cubic feet of paper documents, 7 million photographs and thousands of films and audio recordings.
James Smithson (1765–1829), a British scientist, drew up his will in 1826 naming his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, as beneficiary. Smithson stipulated that, should the nephew die without heirs (as he did in 1835), the estate would go to the United States to found “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”
On July 1, 1836, Congress accepted the legacy bequeathed to the nation by James Smithson and pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust. In 1838, following approval of the bequest by the British courts, the United States received Smithson’s estate—bags of gold sovereigns, then the equivalent of $515,169. Eight years later, on Aug. 10, 1846, an Act of Congress signed by President James K. Polk established the Smithsonian Institution.
The First Building
The Smithsonian Institution Building, commonly known as the Castle, was designed by architect James Renwick and constructed between 1847 and 1855. The Castle houses the Smithsonian Visitor Center and administrative offices, as well as the James Smithson crypt.
Organization of the Smithsonian
The chief executive officer of the Smithsonian is the Secretary, currently Lonnie G. Bunch III (the 14th Secretary). There have been 13 secretaries since 1846. The Institution, established in 1846, is governed by a board of regents which, by law, is composed of the vice president of the United States, the chief justice of the United States, three members of the Senate, three members of the House of Representatives and nine citizen members. The chief justice of the United States has traditionally served as chancellor of the Smithsonian.
Each museum has its own director and staff. The central administration of the Institution is headquartered in the Castle.
The Smithsonian has over 6,300 employees and more than 5,000 volunteers.
The total number of objects, works of art and specimens at the Smithsonian is estimated at nearly 155 million, of which nearly 146 million are scientific specimens at the National Museum of Natural History. Many artifacts are donated to the Smithsonian by individuals, private collectors and federal agencies; others come to the collections through field expeditions, bequests, exchanges with other museums and organizations, and purchases.
Artifacts not on display are stored in collection study areas in the museums and are available to researchers by appointment. Air- and spacecraft are conserved and stored at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, part of the National Air and Space Museum, in Chantilly, Virginia. Other research collections are housed in Landover and Suitland, Maryland, facilities.
- Smithsonian Affiliations—Through this program of long-term loans of artifacts and the expertise of its staff, the Smithsonian shares its vast resources with museums and educational institutions around the country. There are more than 200 affiliates in nearly every state, Puerto Rico and Panama.
- Traveling exhibitions—The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) organizes exhibitions on art, history and science and circulates them around the country. Each year, SITES travels more than 40 exhibitions to hundreds of U.S. cities and towns in every state, where they are viewed by millions of people.
- Digital—The Smithsonian home page offers a wide range of information, from planning a visit to exploring the collections online. The Smithsonian had million unique visitors to its websites in 2020, and has more than 30 mobile apps, digital magazines and more than 17 million images and records on the Collections Search Center site. Across its most frequently used social-media platforms, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, the Smithsonian had more than 18 million followers and nearly 375 million YouTube views in 2020.
- Science education—the Smithsonian Science Education Center works to improve K–12 science learning and teaching for all students in the U.S. and throughout the world. It has provided leadership development programs for more than 1,600 school-district leaders representing all 50 states and 7.3 million of the U.S. student population. It is nationally and internationally recognized for the quality and impact of its programs on the improvement of K–12 science education.
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Linda St. Thomas