Reference FAQ



Smithsonian Institution Information & History

I need general information on the Smithsonian.

The Smithsonian's main website and Newsdesk have current information about the Smithsonian. The Archives also has general history of the Institution available online. If these sites do not contain the information you need, you can contact us.

My family is planning a trip to visit the Smithsonian. I need information on museums, exhibits, hours, locations, etc.

The Smithsonian's main website has all the information you need to plan an enjoyable visit. Hours of Operation, accessibility information, and event listings are also on the site.

I am looking for general information on Smithsonian Buildings.

The Archives has assembled descriptions and images of Smithsonian buildings. The Smithsonian’s Architectural History and Historic Preservation Division is the curator of the Smithsonian's diverse campus of buildings and also has information on building histories.

I need information on the history of the Smithsonian for a school report.

The Archives provides reference service to fairly specific questions dealing with Smithsonian history. Resources on Smithsonian history can be found on this site. If you cannot find the information you need there, ask us a question.

Who is the Secretary of the Smithsonian? What does he/she do? Who were other Secretaries?

The Secretary of the Smithsonian, appointed by the Board of Regents, is the Institution's chief executive officer. The current Secretary is Lonnie G. Bunch III, who assumed his duties in 2019. Former Smithsonian Secretaries have included Joseph Henry, 1846-1878; Spencer F. Baird, 1878-1887; Samuel P. Langley, 1887-1906; Charles D. Walcott, 1907-1927; Charles G. Abbot, 1928-1944; Alexander Wetmore, 1944-1952; Leonard Carmichael, 1953-1964; S. Dillon Ripley, 1964-1984; Robert McC. Adams, 1984-1994; I. Michael Heyman, 1994-1999; Lawrence M. Small, 2000-2007; G. Wayne Clough, 2008-2014; and David Skorton (2014–2018).

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Photography Collections

I want to use a photograph credited to the Smithsonian Institution in my forthcoming publication. How can I acquire a copy?

Acquiring Smithsonian photographs can be very easy or quite tricky, as Smithsonian has millions of photographs scattered amongst the many museums and research organizations under the Smithsonian umbrella. Each of these units serves as the clearinghouse for the rights and reproductions of their own collections. Using the Smithsonian Collections Search Center search engine can help determine where a photograph resides. See also a description of Smithsonian photographic collections.

If you know a photograph is in the Archives’ collection, you can contact our Reference Team regarding rights and reproductions. We will see that you receive the proper rights and reproduction forms and information. Please provide the negative number, and as much detailed information about the image as possible.

If an image is not in the Archives’ collections, once you have identified where an image resides, you can reference the Smithsonian’s Rights, Restrictions, and Security Contacts to determine which individual to contact at each unit regarding rights and reproductions.

I am interested in historical photographs of the Smithsonian.

The Archives has a large general collection of photographs. Included are images of Smithsonian personnel, buildings, exhibitions, specimens, events, world's fairs and expositions, and other topics relating to the history of the Smithsonian. In addition, photographs are often found in Smithsonian records and special collections of personal/professional papers of Smithsonian staff. Each of the Smithsonian’s museums, archives, and libraries hold photographic collections which can be found on the Smithsonian Collections Search Center. If you can’t find the photograph you’re looking for in the Archive’s collections, you may also contact us directly.

I'm looking for historical photographs of American gardens.

The Archives of American Gardens houses many images of cultivated American gardens. Resources about agriculture are also available in the Encyclopedia Smithsonian.

I need to purchase photographs of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and other famous Native Americans.

The National Anthropological Archives and the National Museum of the American Indian both have large collections of photographs documenting Native American life and culture. The Encyclopedia Smithsonian also contains resources on "American Indian History and Culture."

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Personal Collections & Appraisal

Can the Smithsonian identify and appraise an artifact or book that I own?

The Smithsonian does not, as a matter of policy, offer appraisals or monetary valuations of objects for the public. The American Society of Appraisers can direct you to an appraiser in your area. The Encyclopedia Smithsonian has additional resources and information.

I understand I can get plans of airplanes at the Smithsonian.

You should contact the Archives Division at the National Air and Space Museum. The Encyclopedia Smithsonian also has information under "Aeronautics."

I understand the Smithsonian has a collection of ship plans. How can I get access to these plans?

The National Museum of American History has resources on this topic.

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I think I am a descendant of James Smithson. How can I find out?

The Archives often gets inquiries from those who believe they are related to James Smithson. However, there is virtually no strong evidence that James Smithson had any descendents. James Smithson was born in France about 1765. The exact date and place of his birth are unknown. He was the illegitimate child of Elizabeth Keate Macie and Hugh Smithson, Baronet. Smithson never married or had children, and died in Italy in 1829. In his will Smithson left the income of his estate to a nephew, James Henry Hungerford, during the nephew's lifetime. He expressly provided that, should Hungerford marry or have children, legitimate or illegitimate, the whole of Smithson's estate should pass to such child or children. If not, the money was to go to the United States to found the Smithsonian Institution. When Smithson's will was admitted to probate in the British Court of Chancery, the Court required the United States to make an extensive effort to discover if Smithson's nephew had fathered any children, since they would have had sole claim on the estate if they existed. However, no heirs were found and so it was that the United States, the contingent beneficiary, received the money with which to found the Smithsonian Institution. Twice more during the nineteenth century the Smithsonian tried to find Smithson descendants, to no effect. While, it is possible that someone might be related to Smithson collaterally through other members of his family, no relationships by direct descent have been discovered.

My ancestor worked for the Smithsonian. What information do you have?

If you have a relative who worked for the Smithsonian, United States National Museum, National Zoological Park, or one of the myriad of other Smithsonian organizations, we may have information in the Archives. Old payroll records, personnel files, annual reports, photographs, and other records often provide this information. Please contact the Archives with your question.

My Great-Grandfather was a meteorological observer for the Smithsonian. Do you have information on him?

Quite possibly. Record Unit 60, Records of the Meteorological Project, 1849-1875, contains correspondence and weather data of many of Joseph Henry's vast network of observers. Please contact the reference staff.

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I would like to donate an object to the Smithsonian Institution. What should I do?

The Smithsonian acquires thousands of objects and specimens each year for its collection holdings through donation, bequest, purchase, exchange, and field collecting. The Institution accepts only items that truly fill a gap in the collections and then only after careful consideration by museum curators and directors. Because of this rigorous selection process, the Smithsonian adds to its collections only a tiny percentage of what it is offered.

The first thing you should do is contact the Smithsonian museum most closely associated with your object. For example, if it is an Amish quilt, you could contact the National Museum of American History. Once you have contacted the museum, you should be able to obtain the name of a contact person or curator responsible for the specific subject area. Inform the individual about the object that you would like to donate. The person, at that time, may be able to tell you if the museum would be interested or not.

If you are unable to speak to someone, send a letter of inquiry including a description of the object, copies of associated information (bill of sale, family or object history, etc.) and a photograph of the object. Under no circumstance should you mail any objects to the Smithsonian without first receiving permission to do so. Make sure to include your name, return address, and phone number on the letter and photograph. Send your letter to Smithsonian Information at, or call 202-633-1000 (voice/tape) or 202-633-5285 (TTY). If the museum is interested in accepting your donation, museum staff will notify you of the procedures to follow. If the museum cannot accommodate the donation, staff may recommend a more appropriate museum or repository which can effectively use the object.

I have materials that I would like to donate to the Smithsonian Institution Archives. What should I do?

The Archives collects materials that document the history of the Smithsonian Institution and those individuals and organizations closely associated with its programs and activities. Materials may be in many formats, including paper, electronic, photographic, and audiovisual. The Archives does not collect three-dimensional objects or materials that duplicate existing holdings. The Archives accepts donations of material related to its mission, but does not purchase items for its collection. Use the Reference Form to inquire about potential donations. Please include any known information about the materials, including to whom they originally belonged, if applicable, and how they relate to the Smithsonian, as well as an approximation of the amount of material and the format of the material. If it is determined that the Archives is not an appropriate repository for the materials, staff may suggest other institutions with collections related to your materials.

How do I locate an object that was donated to the Smithsonian in the past?

Contact the specific Smithsonian museum where the object was donated. Have the name of the donor, date of donation, and object description available. If you do not have this information, you can also search across the collections that have been digitized to date on the Smithsonian Collections Search Center. If you are unable to speak to museum staff, write or call the Smithsonian Information Center:; 202-633-1000 (voice/tape) or 202-633-5285 (TTY).

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American History & Art

My family and I want to see the Declaration of Independence when we visit the Smithsonian this summer. Please send information.

The Declaration of Independence, as well as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, are in the National Archives and Records Administration. Check the NARA website for information on viewing these historic charters.

I need information on the "Star-Spangled Banner" for a school report.

The National Museum of American History houses the flag and has a wealth of information about its history.

I'm doing a school paper on the Civil War and need resources. Can you help?

See the central Smithsonian page on the Civil War or search the Encyclopedia Smithsonian under "Civil War."

I'm interested in correspondence of American artists.

The Smithsonian Institution Archives houses the records of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the National Portrait Gallery. These records are primarily administrative in nature and concern exhibitions, research of curators, and office administration. A better bet for correspondence and other papers of American artists is the Archives of American Art. See also "American Art" in Encyclopedia Smithsonian.

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Professional Tips

How do I become an archivist?

There is no one path to becoming an archivist, but you will likely need a combination of archival experience from internships and volunteer opportunities and a graduate degree in Library Science (or similar degree), Public History, or Museum Studies. You will also likely need a strong background in writing, research, and computer skills. For additional information on this and related topics, please see the blog post, “Some Archival Career Advice.”

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