Smithsonian History

The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum and research complex, with nineteen museums with over 137 million objects, and nine research centers across the globe. Explore resources on the history of the Institution, beginning with James Smithson’s 1829 bequest to the people of the United States.

This Day in SI History

Moving of Greenough Statue of George Washington, by Unknown, 1962, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 99-73.

Explore what happened at the Smithsonian on any day of the year since 1846.More

James Smithson

James Smithson Engraving, by Heliotype Printing Co, c. 1881, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, MAH 14574 or MAH14574.

Learn about the enigmatic British scientist James Smithson (1765-1829) whose bequest led to the founding of the Smithsonian.More

Secretaries of the Smithsonian

Secretaries Carmichael, Abbot & Ripley, by Unknown, This picture is post-1964, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, P6435-2 or MAH-P6435.2.

The Smithsonian Secretary is the chief executive officer of the Institution. Meet the twelve men who have led the Institution since its founding in 1846.More

Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents

Regents' Room in Smithsonian Institution Building, by Roberts, Co, c. 1856, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 2005-10436.

The law that established the Smithsonian in 1846 created a Board of Regents to serve as trustees to ensure the proper use of James Smithson’s bequest. Learn about their role and meet some of our more famous regents.More


Aerial View of the Mall Filled with People and Tents for 150th Birthday Party on the Mall, by Hofmeister, Richard K, 1996, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 96-25404-19 or 96-25404.19.

Explore the history of the Smithsonian’s nineteen museums and the National Zoo, located in Washington, DC, Maryland, New York City, and Virginia, and covering the arts, culture, history, and science. The Guide to Smithsonian Architecture provides additional information on Smithsonian buildings.More

Smithsonian Research Centers

Chemical Laboratory, Smithsonian Institution Building, by Unknown, c. 1856, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 43804-E or MAH-43804E.

The Smithsonian’s museums are well-known, but since its founding, the Smithsonian has also maintained research centers in the biological and physical sciences, across the United States and abroad. Discover Smithsonian research projects in areas including collection conservation, environmental sciences, astronomy, and marine biology.More

The Smithsonian in Popular Culture

Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh at A&I Building, by Tinsley, Jeff, 1981, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 81-73-29 or SIA81-73-29.

Whether its museums set the scene, objects come to life, or staff turn into colorful characters, the Smithsonian has made its mark in popular culture. Enter to learn more about how the Institution has been portrayed in books, television and movies throughout history.  More


Visitors to Lower Main Hall, SIB, by Unknown (Thomas W. Smillie?), 1867, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 60144A or MAH-60144A.

Visit online exhibits on the history of the Smithsonian, including the founding of the Institution, stories of important figures, historic pictures of our most important sites, a postcard history of the Smithsonian, expeditions to Latin America, and artists who have worked at the Smithsonian.More