The largest museum complex in the world, The Smithsonian boasts over twenty museums, a zoo, and several archives open to scholars and researchers.
But how did the Smithsonian begin? How has it evolved? And what is next for the educational institution?
Tune in to find out.
“2020 Annual Report: Repatriation Activities of the Smithsonian Institution.” Smithsonian Institution. (LINK)
An Act to Establish the Smithsonian Institution, 1846. Smithsonian Institution Archives. (LINK)
“A Brief History of the NMNH.” Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. (LINK)
“A Brief History of the Smithsonian Institution.” Smithsonian. April 14, 2021. (LINK)
“Because of Her Story.” The Smithsonian American Women's History Museum. (LINK)
“Collections.” National Museum of the American Indian. (LINK)
“Interior Department Takes Next Steps to Update Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.” Press Release. United States Department of the Interior. October 13, 2022. (LINK)
“Mission & History.” National Museum of American History. (LINK)
“Our History.” The Smithsonian. (LINK)
Redman, Samuel J.. The Museum: A Short History of Crisis and Resilience. (United States: NYU Press, 2022)
“Smithsonian Collections.” Smithsonian Institution. August 1, 2018. (LINK)
“Star Spangled Banner.” Smithsonian Institution. (LINK)
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey everyone, welcome back.
As a true American history nerd, nothing excited me more than a trip to Washington, D.C. for my birthday a few years back. I was able to tour the Capitol building, secured tickets to the White House where I nearly cried at all the presidential portraits on display, and of course was overjoyed at the prospect of finally stepping foot inside a museum complex I had thus far only dreamed about, the Smithsonian.
With several different museums placed along the national mall, to say I was in nerd heaven would be an understatement. I dragged my poor husband through the Natural History Museum, the Air & Space Museum, and, of course, the National Museum of American History. He was such a good sport - thank you, honey.
But I remember as I walked along the various exhibits of these free museums, I kept thinking to myself - how did this all start? Who came up with the idea of the Smithsonian? And how does the museum network manage to survive without charging any entrance fees?
Little did I know that a few years later I would host a history podcast where I would have an excuse to dive into the answers.
This week, I am exploring the Smithsonian. How was it created? How does it survive? And how has it evolved over the years?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let's do this.
First, for those who may be unaware, the Smithsonian is not a single institution. It is the largest museum complex in the world, boasting twenty-one different museums, a zoo, and a plethora of archives available for scholars and researchers to leverage in their work. When I was in Washington back in 2014 I was only able to drag my husband to a handful of the numerous options at our fingertips. Part of this was because there is just so much to see and experience in D.C. and part of it is I really would like to stay married and supportive though he may be, he can only take so much history. Poor guy.
So now that we’ve established that groundwork, let’s dive in. Oddly enough, the Smithsonian was established as the result of someone who had never stepped foot in the country. James Smithson, a British scientist, stated in his will that his estate should be left to his nephew. If his nephew died without any heirs, the estate was to be transferred to the United States. This money would, in Smithson’s wishes be levered to create a new opportunity for learning that would be quote, “under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” end quote.
There is a lot of speculation surrounding the original gift from Smithson. Why many have asked, would someone who never saw or stepped foot within the United States want to leave their estate to it for the creation of an educational apparatus? Some have guessed Smithson was angry with the British government for failing to recognize his birthright. Some have postulated he was caught up in the enlightenment ideals of America. Whatever his reasons, when Smithson died in 1829 his estate went to his nephew as originally intended.
Smithson’s nephew was a young man and therefore the secondary provision of the will was likely considered a long shot as there would be no way a twenty-something young man would die without heirs. However, that is exactly what happened when Smithson’s nephew, Henry James Hungerford, died at just twenty-seven years old in Italy in 1835 - just six years after his uncle passed. He was unmarried and without children. Therefore, per the original terms of Smithson’s will, the remainder of the estate was scheduled to be transferred to the United States.
Notification of the bequest came to then-president Andrew Jackson. He made the announcement to Congress who accepted the estate in 1836. Upon its acceptance, the estate was routed to the United States treasury where it was officially accepted on May 9, 1838. The estate - which was made up of 100,000 gold sovereigns - was calculated to be over $500,000 U.S. dollars - or about 1/66th of the entire United States federal budget at the time. However, it would take Congress another decade before deciding how the Smithson estate would be spent and just how to develop an institution as he prescribed.
That approval came during the presidency of James K Polk, who signed a bill establishing the Smithsonian Institution on August 10, 1846. The institution was established as a trust which was to be administered by a Board of Regents and a secretary of the Smithsonian. Part of the bill establishing the institution read as follows, quote: “the business of the said Institution shall be conducted at the City of Washington by a board of regents, by the name of regents of the "Smithsonian Institution," to be composed of the Vice-President of the United States, the Chief Justice of the United States, and the Mayor of the City of Washington, during the time for which they shall hold their respective offices; three members of the Senate, and three members of the House of Representatives; together with six other persons, other than members of Congress, two of whom shall be members of the national institute in the City of Washington, and resident in the said city; and the other four thereof shall be inhabitants of States, and no two of them of the same State” end quote.
Can we pause here for a minute and think about how cool it would be to be the politician in charge of the Smithsonian? I know Washington D.C can sometimes feel like a frustrating place, but what a wonderful opportunity to geek out on our country’s past. Okay - sidebar over.
Despite being approved in 1846, the Smithsonian would not have a space available to the public until the design and construction of the building known today as the Castle opened in 1881. Designed by architect James Renwick, the building originally housed a variety of collections and served as the living quarters for the Secretary of the institution. A fire in 1865 destroyed much of the top floor of the Castle, causing the institution to invest in fireproof material in future construction efforts.
While a fire could have spelled doom for the museum, the Smithsonian came back stronger than ever and, upon reopening in 1883, even touted electric lighting. At the turn of the dawn of the twentieth century, the Smithsonian’s estimated collection numbered roughly two and a half million objects. The museum was such a popular institution that in 1897 they decided to expand and create new exhibit halls. The Smithsonian, and institutions like it, were important pieces of American life. Historian Samuel Redman, who published a book last year based on his research on the evolution of the museum, wrote quote: “in the late nineteenth century, museums became some of the most consequential spaces in U.S. cultural life as the nation took its place in the world,” end quote.
The Smithsonian continued to expand in the early part of the twentieth century, opening its second space, the National Museum of Natural History, in 1910. Construction of the building came as the result of second Smithsonian Secretary Dr. Goode’s ongoing plea for more space. The museum’s collection included specimens from prior exploratory trips of the American West in the 1850s as well as artifacts from the United States Exploring Expedition of the 1830s and 40s. Despite having two buildings to store everything, the Smithsonian’s ever-growing collection necessitated the construction of a third building, which was approved by Congress in 1903.
And though he never set foot within the United States during his lifetime, James Smithson’s remains eventually made their way stateside when, in 1904, his original place of internment underwent a bit of construction. Initially buried in Genoa, Italy the site was tagged as a place for a quarry expansion. Without any heirs to make claims, and in honor of his funding the institution, the United States paid to relocate his remains to the national mall where he was re-interned.
Not just a place to look at cool objects, or a place of research for academics, the Smithsonian was pivotal during some of America’s greatest challenges - such as during worldwide conflicts. Again from Redman, quote: “during World War II, museum collections contributed to knowledge construction in an unprecedented manner,” end quote. Leadership from both the Army and Navy visited the Smithsonian to try to learn new ways to engage in war. The institution received a significant number of inquiries from the military to learn about things such as boats used in frigid temperatures, all to make the United States better prepared on the war front. The requests became so numerous that the Smithsonian organized a war committee in 1942.
Formed by two institution employees, Smithsonian Secretary Charles Greely Abbot and engineer Carl W Mitman, the committee originally met daily to figure out the best way to support the country throughout the war. Cultivating exhibits as well as knowledge and expertise, the war committee disseminated surveys to Smithsonian employees to identify anyone with travel, language, or other skills that may prove helpful in the country's defense. Despite the significant workload required to support the military throughout the war, the Smithsonian remained open to the public. According to historian Samuel Redman, this double duty, so to speak, prompted the Smithsonian to evolve to quote, “an institution defined by current affairs as much as an institution shaped by history, culture, and natural sciences,” end quote.
Several museums were added to the Smithsonian lineup throughout the twentieth century, including the National Air and Space Museum, and my personal favorite, the National Museum of American History. Opening in January 1964 the original title of the museum was the Museum of History and Technology. President Eisenhower signed the bill establishing the museum, providing 36 million dollars for its construction costs. Upon opening, the Museum of History and Technology was the sixth building on the mall and quickly welcomed nearly four million guests each year. The mission of the museum is quote, “the collection, care, and study of objects that reflect the experience of the American people,” end quote.
Unsurprisingly, the museum touts quite the collection, including Abraham Lincoln’s notorious top hat. Renamed the National Museum of American History in 1980, the facility has undergone several expansion and restoration projects, including creating a space to display one of the earliest American flags, known as the Star Spangled Banner - the same one that inspired the poem by Francis Scott Key. When I visited a few years ago I remember being completely awestruck by the sight of it. While the flag originally measured thirty feet by forty-two feet, some of it has been lost to time and now sits at thirty by thirty-four feet. Still, quite the sight, and I was left speechless when I first laid eyes on it. The complex was quite large when I visited and had a display of transportation throughout the years, including a true-to-size train car, a display of gowns worn by prior First Ladies, and Judy Garland’s famous ruby red slippers from the movie Wizard of Oz.
Several museums make up the collection of the Smithsonian, including the National Portrait Gallery which opened in 1968, the National Air and Space Museum, opening during America’s Bicentennial Celebration on July 1st, 1976, and the National Postal Museum which opened its doors in 1993. The most recent museum to open to the public is the National Museum of African American History and culture. Opening on September 24, 2016, the museum seeks to share the story of American history through the lens of Black Americans. As of this recording, the museum holds more than forty thousand artifacts to fulfill its mission.
Speaking of artifacts, one of the largest collections held by the Smithsonian is from indigenous populations. If you’ve followed the debates of museum objects at all, then you may be aware there have been - and continues to be - a lot of conversations about museums and artifacts and just who should lay claim to them. In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves and Protections Act, otherwise known as NAGPRA. Under this legislation, any agency receiving federal funding must identify and return any human remains, or culturally significant objects to associated tribes. The Smithsonian has returned hundreds of thousands of items since the nineties and continues to identify and repatriate objects every year.
Not showing any signs of stopping, two new museums were recently authorized as additions to the Smithsonian Institution. In 2020, Congress authorized funding for the creation of both the National Museum of the American Latino and the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum. On their website for the still-in-development museum, the Women History Museum says quote, “women have contributed to America’s most defining moments - times that shaped constitutional rights, yielded scientific breakthroughs, created the symbols for our nation. Yet a diversity of women’s stories has not been widely told,” end quote. If you haven’t caught on by now, I have a soft spot in my heart for the stories of women throughout history. So I am so excited to see how this all turns out. I am especially excited about their goal to incorporate an online presence. One of the good things to come out of the pandemic, in my humble opinion, is the proliferation of the digitization of museums and their material. I love being able to check out new collections and artifacts from the comfort of my own home and it makes me that much more excited to plan a trip.
While the Smithsonian is primarily located along the national mall, the institution has entered into partnerships with museums across the country, known as Smithsonian Affiliates. This allows sharing of artifacts between institutions for temporary exhibits and provides an opportunity to conduct joint research. As of this recording in 2023, the Smithsonian holds more than 155 million objects, including over two million books. Now that is a library. Given these staggering numbers, the Smithsonian estimates that less than 1% of their overall collection is ever on display at one time.
Before the pandemic, the Smithsonian attracted over twenty million visitors each year. That number has dipped, obviously, but considering shorter hours and various closures, the museum still managed to welcome nearly ten million guests through July 2022.
Beginning as an odd donation from an unknown British scientist the Smithsonian has evolved into a network of well-respected educational facilities and is arguably one of the most culturally and historically significant public history sites in the world. Continuing to evolve as the world shifts, I am looking forward to what else we’ll see from the Smithsonian.
Before I sign off, I do want to share an announcement. I will be at the Society for Military History’s annual conference in San Diego in March. I was invited to participate in a panel discussing the importance of podcasting with my friend and fellow podcast Phillip over at Modern Scholars. This is such an exciting opportunity for me and I am so honored to be included. If you are planning on attending, let me know! I would love to chat about history. You can reach me via the socials or through my website at www dot civics and coffee dot com.
Thanks, peeps. I’ll see you next week.
Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.
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