The Smithsonian Institution was founded in 1846 as a trust instrumentality of the United States and consists of nineteen museums, the National Zoo, and specialized research institutes.

If you have any questions about the Smithsonian’s history, we have a wide array of resources to assist you; including exhibits on specialized topics such as Historic Pictures of the Smithsonian, oral/video histories, and resources for K-12 teachers and students.  If you cannot locate the information you seek, contact the Archives’ Institutional History Division.

General History

Strolling on the Mall in Front of SIB

This section contains an overview of the history of the Smithsonian, and its many museums and research institutes, with links to additional resources, including bibliographies, chronologies, timelines, and information on the legal history of the Institution.More

James Smithson, Founding Donor

James Smithson Engraving

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

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

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

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

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

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