From Smithson to Smithsonian The Birth of an Institution

Follow the development of the Smithsonian from Englishman James Smithson's bequest to the founding of the Institution in 1846. 

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Welcome to From Smithson to Smithsonian: The Birth of an Institution, an online exhibition, produced for the 150th anniversary of the Smithsonian in 1996, by the Smithsonian Libraries with the collaboration of the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the Architectural History and Historic Preservation Division (now Smithsonian Preservation.)

Purchase of Smithson Portrait, January 11, 1850, Smithsonian Archives - History Div. In 1829 English scientist James Smithson left his fortune to the people of the United States to found an institution for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge." Smithson's impetus in providing for a research and educational institution in a new country on another continent remains a mystery. His bequest sparked widespread debate over what such a national institution might be. Once established, the Smithsonian Institution became part of the process of developing the U.S. national identity.

Draft of the Will of James Smithson This exhibition highlights the life of James Smithson, the English scientist who bequeathed his fortune to the United States to establish an institution "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge." The exhibition tells of the retrieval of the bequest from Great Britain, and describes the controversy this bequest provoked in the United States, up until the 1846 founding of the Smithsonian Institution. It concludes by tracing the early years of the Institution as it grew and developed under the leadership of its first two Secretaries.

Smithsonian Institution Building, 1858 The Smithsonian is now the world's largest museum complex, composed of a group of national museums and research centers housing the United States' national collections in natural history, American history, air and space, the fine arts and the decorative arts, and several other fields ranging from postal history to cultural history. The Smithsonian includes nineteen museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoo.