The Smithsonian celebrates its 175th anniversary this month. In August 1846, U.S. President James K. Polk signed the Smithsonian Institution Act into law, establishing what would become the world’s largest museum and education complex encompassing 19 museums, nine research facilities, and The National Zoo.
The Smithsonian Institute was established with funds from a British scientist who had never set foot in America. James Smithson (1765 – 1829) drew up a will in 1826 naming his nephew as the beneficiary of his estate. Smithson stipulated that, should the nephew die without heirs, as he did in 1835, everything in his 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.”
The bequest led to controversy within the U.S. government for a variety of reasons. Some felt that the federal government should not accept such a large gift from a foreigner and that it would be unconstitutional. Others argued that the federal government accepting the gift on behalf of the entire nation would abridge state’s rights. There were concerns that the U.S may not have the capacity to uphold the legacy of the gift. President Andrew Jackson believed the gift presented a valuable opportunity for the people of the United States and asked Congress to pass legislation that would give him the authority to accept the gift, which they did in 1836. President Jackson immediately sent a diplomat to England to negotiate a transfer of the funds.
Richard Rush, a lawyer and diplomat, spent two years in England pursuing the U.S. claim. International finance was considerably complex prior to the days of electronic transfers. The mother of Smithson’s designated heir filed a counterclaim, but the court awarded Smithson’s properties to the U.S. in 1838. Rush sold the properties that comprised Smithson’s bequest and converted the proceeds into gold sovereigns. He set sail for home with 11 boxes containing a total of 104,960 gold sovereigns, 8 shillings, and 7 pence, as well as Smithson’s mineral collection, library, scientific notes, and personal effects on a six-week transatlantic voyage. Rush personally posted a $500,000 bond as insurance that he would not abscond with the gift. Rush transferred the gold to the U.S. Treasury, and the coins were melted down amounting to a value of $508,318.46. After considering a series of recommendations, including the creation of a national university, a public library, or an astronomical observatory, Congress agreed that the bequest would support the creation of a museum, a library, and a program of research, publication, and collections in the sciences, arts, and history.
Smithson was born in Paris to a wealthy widow and the the Duke of Northumberland. At the age of 22, he became the youngest person to be admitted to the Royal Society of London – Britain’s oldest and most prestigious scientific society. He published numerous scientific papers on mineral composition, geology, and chemistry. In 1802, he overturned popular scientific opinion by proving that zinc carbonates were true carbonate minerals, and one type of zinc carbonate was later named “smithsonite” in his honor. Although his father was a duke and his mother was a distant relative of King Henry VIII, Smithson was not welcomed into English society because his parents never married.
Smithson died at approximately age 64 while living in Italy. He had never travelled to the U.S., and the motives for his bequest remain largely a mystery. Some suggest that it was motivated by his rejection by English society and his vision of America as a meritocracy where science could take root and flourish. In 1904, when Smithson’s burial ground in Italy was to be displaced by the enlargement of a quarry, the Smithsonian Board of Regents voted to bring Smithson’s remains to the U.S. They were escorted from Italy by Alexander Graham Bell, a member of the Board of Regents, and posthumously reinterred in a crypt in the original Smithsonian building, known as “the castle.”
The castle was completed in 1855 at a cost of $318,727.01. Two years later, the Smithsonian was named the National Museum of the U.S. which made it eligible to receive federal appropriations to care for national collections. The Arts & Industries building opened in 1881 and was the first building to be constructed as a National Museum. It closed completely in 2004 due to structural concerns, but will open for the first time in two decades in celebration of the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary this year. The Smithsonian continued to grow with the opening of the Astrophysical Observatory (1890), the National Zoo (1891), the Natural History Museum (1910), the National Museum of American History (1964), and the Air and Space Museum (1976), and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (2016) to name a few. Congress passed legislation in 2020 establishing two new museums at the Smithsonian, including the National Museum of the American Latino and the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum, and is in the planning stages for both. The Institution is 62% federally funded with other sources of funding from private donations and revenue from operations. Admission to all museums is free. The museum and its research and education centers are credited with developing an American national identity based on exploration and discovery, innovation, heritage preservation, and the advancement of the sciences.
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