TR Robertson — As different state and governmental agencies begin to loosen restrictions put in place due to the COVID pandemic, a number of popular attractions, parks, museums, and other entertainment venues are beginning to slowly open for the public to once again enjoy. One of the most visited complexes of buildings in the United States, prior to COVID, has announced on their web page that they are indeed open and welcoming visitors back. I am referring to the 20 museums and galleries of the Smithsonian Institution as well as the National Zoological Park. Seventeen of these buildings are in Washington D.C. and the remaining museums and galleries are in New York City and Chantilly, Virginia. The Arts and Industries Building was built for special events, this is temporarily on hold. The one of the newest buildings is the National Museum of African American History, which is open.
Safety measures have been put in place to protect everyone’s health. Free timed-entry passes are required for entry to the museums, galleries and the zoo. The Gardens are open with no passes required. There are also digital resources at the Smithsonian web site where you can visit online events, exhibitions and podcasts.
The 19 museums, 21 libraries, 9 research centers and the zoo and historical landmarks contact over 154 million items. During a typical year The Institution has over 30 million annual visitors. 11 of the 20 Smithsonian Institution museums and galleries are located at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The National Mall runs between the Lincoln Memorial and the United States Capitol building. The Washington Monument is slightly west of the center. The Smithsonian also holds close ties with over 200 museums in all 50 states, as well as Puerto Rico and Panama.
History and Founding of the Smithsonian — The Smithsonian is a result of the generous donation of British scientist James Smithson (1765-1829). Smithson was leaving most of his wealth to his nephew Henry James Hungerford. Hungerford died childless in 1835 and the estate passed “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, as Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men”, stipulated in Smithson’s original will. In 1836, President Andrew Jackson informed Congress of the gift, which the Congress accepted in 1838. The total amount of the gift was $500,000. This amount is equivalent to $12,005,000 in todays dollars, but when compared to the GDP at the time it would probably amount to more than $220 million today.
Initially, the U.S. Treasury invested the money in bonds issued by the state of Arkansas. These defaulted. Eventually, led by John Quincey Adams, Congress restored the funds with interest. President James K. Polk signed legislation that established the Smithsonian Institution as a trust of the United States, and it would be administered by a board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian. The first secretary was Joseph Henry and the first project for the Smithsonian was the United States Exploring Expedition by the U.S. Navy, which circumnavigated the globe between 1838 and 1842. The Expedition collected thousands and thousands of plant and animal specimens, minerals and artifacts which became part of the Smithsonian’s first collections.
The first building completed for the Institution was the Smithsonian Institution Building, known as The Castle. The building was opened in 1855. This building houses an art gallery, a library, a chemical laboratory, lecture halls, museum galleries and offices. During this time, the Smithsonian was mainly a learning institution. The second secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird acquired 60 train boxcars worth of displays from the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and by 1881 the National Museum opened its doors to the public.
List of the Washington, D.C. Museums
- Anacostia Community Museum – African American culture – opened 1967
- Arthur M. Sackler Gallery – Asian art – opened 1987
- Arts and Industries Building – Special Events – opened 1881
- Freer Gallery of Art – Asian art – opened 1923
- Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture – Contemporary and modern art – opened 1974
- National Air and Space Museum – Aviation and spaceflight history – 1946
- National Museum of African American History and Culture – African American History – opened 2016
- National Museum of African Art – African art – 1964
- National Museum of American History – American history – opened 1964
- National Museum of the American Indian – Native American history and art – opened 2004
- National Museum of Natural History – Natural history – opened 1994
- National Portrait Gallery – Portraiture – opened 1968
- National Postal Museum – United States Postal Service history – opened 1993
- Renwick Gallery – American craft and decorative arts – opened 1972
- Smithsonian American Art Museum – American art – opened 1968
- Smithsonian Institution Building (The Castle) – visitor center and offices – opened 1855
- National Zoological Part (National Zoo) – Zoo – opened 1889
The top three most visited museums. Prior to COVID, were the Museum of Natural History, the National air and Space Museum and the Museum of American History.
Trivia About The Smithsonian Institution
- James Smithson never set foot in the United States. He never commented on why he was leaving his fortune to the United States.
- It took 10 years after Congress received the donation to decide what to do with the money.
- At the height of WW II, the museums collections were boxed up and shipped to an undisclosed location in Luray, Virginia and stored in climate-controlled warehouses until 1944.
- Smokey the Bear arrived at the National Zoo in 1950 and lived there until his death 26 years later.
- Only 1% of all the museums and galleries collections are on display to the public, the rest are kept safely in storage areas in each museum and gallery.
- Human remains remain out of public viewing in most of the museums.
- The museum displayed, at one time, remains collected from the WW II bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Only on display now is the plane, the Enola Gay.
- A plaster cast of Jimmy Durante’s 3-inch-long nose was once offered to The Smithsonian, which they turned down.
- In 2016, two researchers found a skull of a 25-million-year-old river dolphin sitting. on storage shelves. It had been there for 50 years and led to the discovery of a never before know species.
- The Smithsonian raised over $300,000 to preserve one of the three know pairs of ruby slippers Dorothy wore in the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz.
- The casket of James Smithson is on display at the Institution.
For many of you, a visit to the east coast, when things are back to some degree of normalcy, might include a trip to see the site of Washington, D.C. Be sure to include a stop in several of the Smithsonian Museums or Galleries and see exhibits from our nations and the worlds past.