The Impossible Museum: The Smithsonian Celebrates 150 Years

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  • In this article, the author offers a popular history of the Smithsonian Institution on the occasion of its sesquicentennial. The Smithsonian was established in 1846 via a bequest from Britisher James Smithson that included the vague wording that the Smithsonian Institution should be founded in Washington, D.C. as "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Different meanings of that phrase were argued; perhaps Smithson had in mind a scientific research center, an interpretation favored by first Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry. However, the U. S. Congress stipulated that the Smithsonian's responsibilities should include administration of a museum housing the national Cabinet of Curiosities items and other collections of historical and ethnological materials.
  • Second Smithsonian Secretary Spencer F. Baird was in favor of a National Museum, which flourished and grew under his direction after the Smithsonian's participation in projects celebrating the nation's 1876 Centennial. Curator George Brown Goode ably assisted Baird in reorganizing the National Museum, and became assistant director in charge of the United States National Museum (later known as the Arts and Industries Building) when the building opened in 1881. The author discusses Smithsonian growth, development, and transition during the tenures of ensuing Smithsonian Secretaries, including S. Dillon Ripley's efforts to reassert the Smithsonian's scholarship role while establishing new programs for the public.


  • Ripley, Sidney Dillon 1913-2001
  • Goode, G. Brown (George Brown) 1851-1896
  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Smithson, James 1765-1829
  • Arts and Industries Building
  • United States National Museum
  • United States Congress
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (Washington, D.C.)


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Ten photographs and illustrations accompany the article.

Contained within

Museum News (Journal)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,


July/August 1996


  • Smithson Bequest
  • Anniversaries
  • Cabinets of curiosities
  • Secretaries
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • SI, Early History
  • SI Buildings
  • Federal Government, Relations with SI

Physical description

pgs. 42-51

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