General History

James Smithson Portrait by Henri Johns, 1816
James Smithson Portrait by Henri Johns, 1816
Cover of Sheet Music for the "Smithsonian Polka", by Sindall, Henry S, 1855, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 82-3240.
Smithsonian Castle, 1855
Aerial View of Smithsonian Buildings, 1933, by Jex, Garnet W, 1933, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, MAH10981.
Aerial View of Smithsonian Buildings, 1933

Establishment

James Smithson Engraving, by Heliotype Printing Co, c. 1881, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, MAH 14574 or MAH14574.On August 10, 1846, the United States Congress passed the legislation (9 Stat. 102) founding the Smithsonian Institution as an establishment dedicated to the "increase and diffusion of knowledge," and President James K. Polk signed it into law the same day. This legislation was the culmination of over a decade of debate within the Congress, and among the general public, over an unusual bequest. When the English chemist and mineralogist, James Smithson, died in 1829, he left a will stating that if his nephew and sole heir died without heirs, his estate should 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.”

Congressional Debates

Andrew Jackson's Letter to Congress Regarding the Smithson Bequest, December 17, 1835, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 2005-33527. After Smithson’s nephew died in 1835, the United States was notified of this bequest. President Andrew Jackson asked the US Congress for authorization to pursue the bequest, sparking a controversy between federalists and advocates of states' rights. Senators John C. Calhoun and William Campbell Preston argued that there was no constitutional authority to create a national institution. However, led by John Quincy Adams, the federalists prevailed, and in 1836, Richard Rush traveled to England to file a claim for the Smithson estate in the British Court of Chancery, then eight hundred cases in arrears. In just two years, Rush won a judgment for the United States, disposed of Smithson's properties, and converted the proceeds to gold sovereigns. When the estate was delivered to the US Mint in Philadelphia in September 1838, it totaled $508,318.46.

Another decade of debate passed, however, before the Smithsonian was actually established. Congressmen, educators, researchers, social reformers, and the general public all voiced opinions as to what they believed Smithson had meant by “the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Initially most Americans assumed that Smithson intended to found a university, so the debates centered on what type of school. Gradually other ideas were introduced—an observatory, a scientific research institute, a national library, a publishing house, or a museum. The Smithsonian’s enabling act was a compromise among these ideas, leaving out only the university.

Act of Organization

Facsimle of the Act to Establish Smithsonian Institution, by United States Congress, 1846, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 96-1652 and 96-1653 and 96-1654 and 96-1655 and 96-1656 and 96-1657 and 96-1658 and 96-1659 and 96-1660.The Smithsonian Institution was created as a federal establishment, not part of the three branches of government, managed by a self-perpetuating Board of Regents. The Smithsonian Regents had to decide how to carry out Smithson's vague mandate and the broad legislation. Their first act was to build a home for the Institution, a Norman "Castle" designed by architect James Renwick, Jr., located on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Joseph Henry, Secretary (1846–1878)

Joseph Henry Portrait, by Ulke, Henry, 1879, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 10191or AI-10191.The Regents selected as the first Secretary or chief operating officer, Joseph Henry (1797–1878), a distinguished physicist from the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, who was an expert on electromagnetic induction. Henry prepared a “Programme of Organization” to define the programs of the new Institution. During his years as Secretary (1846-1878), Henry focused on increasing knowledge through scientific research, and diffusing knowledge through publication of the Smithsonian Contribution to Knowledge and through international exchange of publications. He also established a national network of weather observers that led to the founding of the National Weather Service.

The first objects donated to the Institution were scientific apparatus, the gift of Robert Hare of the University of Pennsylvania in 1848. The following year, the Institution purchased its first collection, art, books, and other works collected by Regent George Perkins Marsh. During the Civil War years, programs were curtailed, but the Institution was not affected substantially by the nearby fighting. A fire in the Castle in 1865, caused by a careless workman, destroyed the central portion of the building and many of the early collections. Henry was reluctant to use the Smithson fund for a national library or museum. Thus in 1865, he transferred the art collection to the Library of Congress and Corcoran Gallery of Art. In 1866, he transferred the Smithsonian library to the Library of Congress and had the provision for copyright deposit at the Smithsonian repealed from the legislation. Henry accepted natural history collections, as necessary for research, but worried about the costs of maintaining a museum collection and exhibits. Starting in 1858, Congress provided an annual appropriation to the Smithsonian for the care of the national collections.

Spencer Fullerton Baird, Secretary (1878–1887)

National Museum Building Committee, 1880, by Unknown, 1880, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 78-10099.The second Secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823–1887), focused his tenure from 1878-1887 on creating a great national museum. As Henry's assistant since 1850, he had established a natural history collecting network across the country. Baird's goal was a comprehensive collection of all the natural resources of the continent in the United States National Museum. Based on his knowledge of the natural resources of Russian-America, in 1867 Baird presented persuasive testimony to Congress in favor of the purchase of Alaska. The government's collection of art works, historical memorabilia, and scientific specimens, housed at the National Institute gallery in the Patent Office Building, was transferred to the Smithsonian as well. Baird prepared all of the government exhibits for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. The Smithsonian exhibits gave the Institution national visibility. At the close of the exposition, Baird convinced most exhibitors to donate their displays to the Smithsonian and persuaded Congress to build a new National Museum Building. Now known as the Arts and Industries Building, its first event was President James A. Garfield's inaugural ball on March 4, 1881. When the building opened to the public in October of that year, it housed exhibits on natural history and history.

During Baird's tenure, in 1879, the Bureau of American Ethnology was added to the Smithsonian's programs. Baird served simultaneously as US Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries (1871-1887), overseeing research on the fishing industry that later led to the creation of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Samuel P. Langley, Secretary (1887–1906)

Secretary Samuel P. Langley, by Dinst, Chine, c. 1905, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 82-3220.During his tenure from 1889 to 1906, the third Secretary, Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834–1906), created the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in 1890 to facilitate his research on solar phenomena, oversaw the opening of the National Zoological Park in 1891, created a "Children's Room" in 1901 designed to awaken the curiosity of the young, and secured funding for a new National Museum building. Langley also attempted to design the first flying machine, but his "aerodrome" lacked the aerodynamic features of the Wright Brothers airplane that flew successfully at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903.

Charles D. Walcott, Secretary (1907–1927)

Charles Doolittle Walcott, by Unknown, 1922, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 2002-10626.Charles Doolittle Walcott (1850–1927), paleontologist and director of the United States Geological Survey from 1894 to 1907, succeeded Langley as the fourth Secretary from 1907 to 1927. In 1911, a new museum building, now known as the National Museum of Natural History, opened to house natural history and art collections. The building was closed during World War I to house the Bureau of War Risk Insurance. A National Gallery of Art, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum, was formally created in 1920. In 1923 the Freer Gallery of Art also opened, housing industrialist Charles Lang Freer's collection of Oriental art and the works of James McNeill Whistler.

Charles Greeley Abbot, Secretary (1928-1944)

Dr. Charles G. Abbot with Book, by Unknown, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 42563 or MAH-42563.The fifth Secretary, Charles Greeley Abbot (1872-1973), served from 1928 to 1944, through the Great Depression and World War II. During World War II, the national collections were removed to a warehouse near Luray, Virginia, for safekeeping. The Smithsonian housed the Ethnogeographic Board, whose mission was to provide the military with ethnographic and geographic information about little known areas of the world, especially the Pacific.

Alexander Wetmore, Secretary (1944–1952)

Alexander Wetmore, Sixth SI Secretary, by Unknown, 1944, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 82-3138.After the war from 1945 to 1952, Alexander Wetmore (1886–1978), the sixth Secretary, oversaw a program of exhibits modernization at the National Museum. In 1946, the Canal Zone Biological Area was transferred to the Smithsonian. Now known as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, this research station in the Panama Canal was founded in 1923 to facilitate research on the tropics. The National Museum's growing aeronautical collection, which included Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, was formally designated the National Air Museum in 1946. The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service was inaugurated in 1952 to facilitate exhibits at venues outside the Institution.

Leonard Carmichael, Secretary (1953–1964)

Leonard Carmichael, 7th SI Secretary, by Unknown, c. 1955, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 43352 or MAH-43352.Seventh Secretary Leonard Carmichael (1898–1973), who served from 1953 to 1964, laid the groundwork for a period of growth during the 1950s. Carmichael secured the appropriation for a new museum building for the history collections, which opened in 1964 and is now the National Museum of American History. New wings were added to the Natural History Building, now the National Museum of Natural History, in the 1960s to house additional collections. The Patent Office Building was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1958 to serve as a home for the national art collections. A major capital improvement program was initiated at the National Zoological Park in the 1960s, and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory was revitalized and transferred to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1955. After the launching of Sputnik in 1957, the observatory played a major role in the tracking of artificial satellites.

S. Dillon Ripley, Secretary (1964–1984)

S. Dillon Ripley Standing by Duck Pond in Litchfield, Connecticut, by Naltchayan, Harry, April 1969, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, SIA2011-1488 and P65681.S. Dillon Ripley (1913–2001), eighth Secretary from 1964–1984, oversaw a major expansion in Smithsonian programs. New museums included the Anacostia Museum (1967), now the Anacostia Community Museum; the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, in New York (1968); the Smithsonian American Art Museum (1968); the National Portrait Gallery (1968); the Renwick Gallery (1972); the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (1974); the National Museum of African Art (1979); the Sackler Gallery (1983); and the International Center (1987). A new building for the National Air and Space Museum opened on July 4, 1976, in celebration of the Bicentennial of the American Revolution, and the Arts and Industries Building was renovated to recreate the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia of 1876.

New programs included the Office of Fellowships and Grants in 1964, The Smithsonian Associates and Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in 1965, Office of Museum Programs in 1966, first Festival of American Folklife in 1967, now the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Conservation Analytical Laboratory in 1969, Smithsonian magazine, Smithsonian Institution Archives, and Archives of American Art in 1970, Smithsonian Marine Station at Link Port in 1971 (now at Fort Pierce), Office of Elementary and Secondary Education in 1974, Office of Telecommunications in 1975, and Office of Horticulture in 1976. Expansions of existing programs included the Fred L. Whipple Observatory in Arizona, housing the Multiple Mirror Telescope, in 1968; the Conservation and Research Center, now the Conservation Biology Institute of the National Zoological Park located in Front Royal, Virginia, in 1975; and the Museum Support Center in 1983 to house collections storage and handling.

Robert McCormick Adams, Secretary (1984–1994)

Secretary Robert McCormick Adams, by Hofmeister, Richard K, 1984, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 84-14656-11A.From 1984 to 1993, Robert McCormick Adams (1926– ) served as ninth Secretary, presiding over a period of consolidation and renewed emphasis on research. Museums founded during his tenure were the National Museum of the American Indian in 1989, located in both New York and Washington, DC, and the National Postal Museum in 1990. New research programs focused on the role of man in the environment, and included the Biodiversity Program established in 1986 in conjunction with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's Man and the Biosphere Program; and the Mpala Research Station established in Kenya in 1992. The National Science Resource Center was established in 1985 in cooperation with the National Academy of Sciences to develop pre-college curriculum resources in mathematics and science.

Expansions of existing programs included the Arctic Studies Center established in the National Museum of Natural History in 1988 and a new observatory in Mount Harquehala, Hawaii, in 1991. In 1994, the Commission on the Future of the Smithsonian Institution issued its report, E Pluribus Unum: This Divine Paradox, setting forth its vision for the Smithsonian of the 21st century. As the national museum seen by some twenty-nine million visitors per year, in the 1980s and 1990s Smithsonian exhibits such as The West as America, Science in American Life, and Enola Gay, became the focus for public debates over issues of cultural and historical identity.

I. Michael Heyman, Secretary (1994–1999)

I. Michael Heyman, by Tinsley, Jeff, 1994, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 94-10188-19.When the tenth Secretary, I. Michael Heyman (1930– ), took office in 1993, he turned his attention to disseminating information electronically and celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Institution in 1996. Sesquicentennial programs included the largest traveling exhibit ever mounted, America's Smithsonian, which traveled to twelve cities over a two year period; a major development campaign; and a celebration on the National Mall on August 10, 1996. By its sesquicentennial, the Institution housed over 140 million artifacts and specimens in its sixteen museums. The Smithsonian endowment had grown to some $378 million, part of a net operating budget in 1994 of $421.4 million. A staff of over 6,700 and some 5,200 volunteers carried out its programs in museums and research institutes in Washington, DC, across the continent, and around the world. In 1995, the inauguration of the Smithsonian Institution's first website made the Institution's resources and exhibits available worldwide.

Lawrence M. Small, Secretary (2000–2007)

Secretary Small, by McCrea, Terry G, July 31, 2001, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 2001-7964.10.The eleventh Secretary, Lawrence M. Small (1941–), was appointed in 2000 and served until 2007. Significant events in his tenure include the passage of legislation in 2003 to create the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the opening of the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum, and the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

G. Wayne Clough, Secretary (2008–    )

G. Wayne Clough, by Hansen, Carl C, July 26, 2008, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, Clough_Wayne_Smithsonianthb.The twelfth Secretary, G. Wayne Clough (1941–  ), a civil engineer and former President of Georgia Institute of Technology, became Secretary in 2008. He initiated the development of a new Strategic Planfor the Institution, and launched a program to digitize the Smithsonian’s resources. He also oversaw several major openings at the Smithsonian, including the reopening of the National Museum of American History, as well as the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins and Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History.

Further Resources

Today in Smithsonian History

Arthur Wesley Dow in his Studio

July 29, 1977

Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922) exhibit opens at the National Collection of Fine Arts, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Dow was an influential art educator around the turn of the century.More