The Smithsonian: America’s Attic

United States - Scott #943 (1946)
United States – Scott #943 (1946)

On August 10, 1846, the Smithsonian Institution was chartered by the United States Congress after British scientist James Smithson donated $500,000. Established “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” the Smithsonian is a group of museums and research centers administered by the Government of the United States. The institution is named after its founding donor, James Smithson. Originally organized as the “United States National Museum,” that name ceased to exist as an administrative entity in 1967.

Termed “the nation’s attic” for its eclectic holdings of 154 million items, the Institution’s nineteen museums, nine research centers, and zoo include historical and architectural landmarks, mostly located in the District of Columbia. Additional facilities are located in Arizona, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York City, Pittsburgh, Texas, Virginia, and Panama. More than 200 institutions and museums in 45 states, Puerto Rico, and Panama are Smithsonian Affiliates.

The Institution’s thirty million annual visitors are admitted without charge. Its annual budget is around $1.2 billion with 2/3 coming from annual federal appropriations. Other funding comes from the Institution’s endowment, private and corporate contributions, membership dues, and earned retail, concession, and licensing revenue. Institution publications include Smithsonian and Air & Space magazines.

The original Smithsonian Institution building, nicknamed
The original Smithsonian Institution building, nicknamed “The Castle”.

The British scientist James Smithson (1765–1829) left most of his wealth to his nephew Henry James Hungerford. When Hungerford died childless in 1835, the estate passed “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men”, in accordance with Smithson’s will. Congress officially accepted the legacy bequeathed to the nation, and pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust on July 1, 1836. The American diplomat Richard Rush was dispatched to England by President Andrew Jackson to collect the bequest. Rush returned in August 1838 with 105 sacks containing 104,960 gold sovereigns (about $500,000 at the time, which is equivalent to $11,493,000 in 2018).

Once the money was in hand, eight years of Congressional haggling ensued over how to interpret Smithson’s rather vague mandate “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Unfortunately, the money was invested by the U.S. Treasury in bonds issued by the state of Arkansas which soon defaulted. After heated debate, Massachusetts Representative (and ex-President) John Quincy Adams persuaded Congress to restore the lost funds with interest and, despite designs on the money for other purposes, convinced his colleagues to preserve it for an institution of science and learning. Finally, on August 10, 1846, President James K. Polk signed the legislation that established the Smithsonian Institution as a trust instrumentality of the United States, to be administered by a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian.

Statue of Joseph Henry, a Scottish-American physicist who served as the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, in front of the Smithsonian Institution Building (Smithsonian Castle) in Washington, D.C. Photo taken by David Bjorgen on May 17, 2005
Statue of Joseph Henry, a Scottish-American physicist who served as the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, in front of the Smithsonian Institution Building (Smithsonian Castle) in Washington, D.C. Photo taken by David Bjorgen on May 17, 2005.

Though the Smithsonian’s first Secretary, Joseph Henry, wanted the Institution to be a center for scientific research, it also became the depository for various Washington and U.S. government collections. The United States Exploring Expedition by the U.S. Navy circumnavigated the globe between 1838 and 1842. The voyage amassed thousands of animal specimens, an herbarium of 50,000 plant specimens, and diverse shells and minerals, tropical birds, jars of seawater, and ethnographic artifacts from the South Pacific Ocean. These specimens and artifacts became part of the Smithsonian collections, as did those collected by several military and civilian surveys of the American West, including the Mexican Boundary Survey and Pacific Railroad Surveys, which assembled many Native American artifacts and natural history specimens.

In 1846, the regents developed a plan for weather observation; in 1847, money was appropriated for meteorological research. The Institution became a magnet for young scientists from 1857 to 1866, who formed a group called the Megatherium Club. The Smithsonian played a critical role as the U.S. partner institution in early bilateral scientific exchanges with the Academy of Sciences of Cuba.

Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian Institution “Castle”- restored image from glass negative, photographed between 1860 and 1880. From the Brady-Handy Photograph Collection at the Library of Congress.

The Smithsonian Institution Building (“the Castle”) was designed by architect James Renwick, Jr., whose other works include St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, also in Washington D.C. The building committee held a nationwide design competition in 1846 and selected Renwick’s design by a unanimous vote. A cardboard model of Renwick’s winning design survives and is on display in the Castle. Renwick was assisted by Robert Mills, particularly in the internal arrangement of the building.

Initially intended to be built in white marble, then in yellow sandstone, the architect and building committee finally settled on Seneca red sandstone from the Seneca Quarry in Montgomery County, Maryland. The redstone was substantially less expensive than granite or marble, and while initially easy to work, was found to harden to a satisfactory degree on exposure to the elements. Scholarly evidence indicates it is likely that slaves were employed at Seneca in quarrying stone for the Castle, though no evidence has surfaced that slaves were involved in the actual Castle construction.

The building committee selected Gilbert Cameron as the general contractor, and construction began in 1847. The East Wing was completed in 1849 and occupied by Secretary Joseph Henry and his family. The West Wing was completed later the same year. A structural collapse in 1850 of partly completed work raised questions of workmanship and resulted in a change to fireproof construction. The Castle’s exterior was completed in 1852; Renwick’s work was completed and he withdrew from further participation. Cameron continued the interior work, which he completed in 1855. Construction funds came from “accrued interest on the Smithson bequest.”

The
The “Castle” (1847), the Smithsonian Institution’s first building and still its headquarters. Photo taken on March 19, 2007.

Renwick designed the Castle as the focal point of a picturesque landscape on the Mall, using elements from Georg Moller’s Denkmäler der deutschen Baukunst. Renwick originally intended to detail the building with entirely American sculptural flora in the manner of Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s work at the United States Capitol, but the final work used conventional pattern-book designs.

The building was completed in the Gothic Revival style with Romanesque motifs. This style was chosen to evoke the Collegiate Gothic in England and the ideas of knowledge and wisdom. The building comprises a central section, two extensions or ranges, and two wings. Four towers contain occupiable space, while five smaller towers are primarily decorative, although some contain stairs. As constructed, the central section contained the main entry and museum space (now the Great Hall), with a basement beneath and a large lecture room above. Two galleries on the second floor were used to display artifacts and art. This area is now the Visitor’s Information and Associates’ Reception area. The East Range contained laboratory space on the first floor and research space on the second. The East Wing contained storage space on the first floor and a suite of rooms on the second as an apartment for the Secretary of the Smithsonian. This space is currently used as administrative offices and archives. The West Range was one story and used as a reading room. The West Wing, known as the chapel, was used as a library. The West Wing and Range are now used as a quiet room for visitors to go.

On the exterior, the principal tower on the south side is 91 feet (28 m) high and 37 feet (11 m) square. On the north side there are two towers, the taller on 145 feet (44 m) tall. A campanile at the northeast corner is 17 feet (5.2 m) square and 117 feet (36 m) tall.

The east entrance to the Smithsonian Institution Building, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photo taken on April 14, 2010.
The east entrance to the Smithsonian Institution Building, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photo taken on April 14, 2010.

The plan allowed for expansion at either end, a major reason for the informal medievally-inspired design, which would not suffer if asymmetrically developed.

Despite the upgraded fireproof construction, a fire in 1865 caused extensive damage to the upper floor of the building, destroying the correspondence of James Smithson, Henry’s papers, two hundred oil paintings of American Indians by John Mix Stanley, the Regent’s Room and the lecture hall, and the contents of the public libraries of Alexandria, Virginia and Beaufort, South Carolina, confiscated by Union forces during the American Civil War. The ensuing renovation was undertaken by local Washington architect Adolf Cluss in 1865-67. Further fireproofing work ensued in 1883, also by Cluss, who by this time had designed the neighboring Arts and Industries Building. A third and fourth floor were added to the East Wing, and a third floor to the West Wing. Electric lighting was installed in 1895.

Around 1900, the wooden floor of the Great Hall was replaced with terrazzo and a Children’s Museum was installed near the south entrance. A tunnel connected to the Arts and Industries Building. A general renovation took place in 1968-70 to install modern electrical systems, elevators and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. The Enid A. Haupt Garden was dedicated in 1987, along with the Renwick Gate facing Independence Avenue, built from Seneca redstone retrieved from the demolished D.C. Jail.

The Smithsonian Castle houses the administrative offices of the Smithsonian. The main Smithsonian visitor center is also located here, with interactive displays and maps. Computers electronically answer most common questions. A crypt just inside the north entrance houses the tomb of James Smithson.

Rendering of the new United States National Museum, now the Arts and Industries Building, designed by Adolph Cluss and Rudolph Schulze. Record Unit 95, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. SIA2011-1079.
Rendering of the new United States National Museum, now the Arts and Industries Building, designed by Adolph Cluss and Rudolph Schulze. Record Unit 95, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. SIA2011-1079.

The Smithsonian’s first expansion came with construction of the Arts and Industries Building in 1881. Congress had promised to build a new structure for the museum if the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition generated enough income. It did, and the building was designed by architects Adolf Cluss and Paul Schulze, based on original plans developed by Major General Montgomery C. Meigs of the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Initially named the National Museum, it was built to provide the Smithsonian with its first proper facility for public display of its growing collections. The building opened in 1881, hosting an inaugural ball for President James A. Garfield.

The Arts and Industries Building was sited slightly farther back from the Mall than the Smithsonian Castle to avoid obscuring the view of the Castle from the Capitol. The building was designed to be symmetrical, composed of a Greek cross with a central rotunda. The exterior was constructed with geometric patterns of polychrome brick, and a sculpture entitled Columbia Protecting Science and Industry by sculptor Caspar Buberl was placed above the main entrance on the north side. The interior of the building was partially lit through the use of skylights and clerestory windows. An iron truss roof covers the building. In 1883, the exterior was adjusted to use a more vibrant maroon-colored brick.

The building is composed of four pavilions, one at each corner, about 40 feet (12 m) square and three stories tall. These surround a central rotunda. Lower sections or “ranges” were placed outside the pavilions. Pervasive complaints of dampness and the poor health of the building’s occupants led to the replacement of the wood floors in the 1890s. Balconies were added in 1896–1902 to increase space after a new Smithsonian Building failed to be authorized by the United States Congress. A tunnel was constructed in 1901 to the Smithsonian Institution Building next door. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1971. After being closed for renovation, the building opened in the spring of 2016 for events and exhibitions.

Map of the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.
Map of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.

The National Zoological Park opened in 1889. It first started as the National Museum’s Department of Living Animals in 1886 and is one of the oldest zoos in the United States. By an act of Congress in 1889, for “the advancement of science and the instruction and recreation of the people” the National Zoo was created. In 1890, it became a part of the Smithsonian Institution. Three well-known individuals drew up plans for the zoo: Samuel Langley, third Secretary of the Smithsonian; William T. Hornaday, noted conservationist and head of the Smithsonian’s vertebrate division; and Frederick Law Olmsted, the premier landscape architect of his day. William Temple Hornaday was the curator of all 185 animals when the park was first opened. Together, they designed a new zoo to exhibit animals for the public and to serve as a refuge for wildlife, such as bison and beaver, which were rapidly vanishing from North America.

For the first 50 years, the National Zoo, like most zoos around the world, focused on exhibiting one or two representative exotic animal species. The number of many species in the wild began to decline drastically because of human activities. Sometimes animals became unexpectedly available. In 1899, the Kansas frontiersman Charles “Buffalo” Jones captured a bighorn sheep for the zoo. The fate of animals and plants became a pressing concern. Many of these species were favorite zoo animals, such as elephants and tigers; hence the staff began to concentrate on the long-term management and conservation of entire species.

In the mid-1950s, the zoo hired its first full-time permanent veterinarian, reflecting a priority placed on professional health care for the animals. In 1958, Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) was founded. The citizen group’s first accomplishment was to persuade Congress to fund the zoo’s budget entirely through the Smithsonian; previously, the zoo’s budget was divided between appropriations for the Smithsonian and the District of Columbia. Congressional funding placed the zoo on a firmer financial base, allowing for a period of growth and improvement.

Entrance to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Entrance to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

In the early 1960s, the zoo turned its attention to breeding and studying threatened and endangered species. Although some zoo animals had been breeding and raising young, it was not understood why some species did so successfully while others did not. In 1965, the zoo created the zoological research division to study the reproduction, behavior, and ecology of zoo species, and to learn how best to meet the needs of the animals.

In 1975, the zoo established the Conservation and Research Center (CRC). In 2010, the complex was renamed the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), a title also used as an umbrella term for the scientific endeavors that take place on both campuses. On 3,200 acres (13 km²) in the Virginia countryside, rare species, such as Mongolian wild horses, scimitar-horned oryx, maned wolves, cranes, and others live and breed in spacious surroundings. SCBI’s modern efforts emphasize reproductive physiology, analysis of habitat and species relationships, genetics, husbandry and the training of conservation scientists.

Ford Model T parked in front of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History (then known as the National Museum) in en:Washington, D.C. Photo taken circa 1926.
Ford Model T parked in front of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (then known as the National Museum) in en:Washington, D.C. Photo taken circa 1926.

The Natural History Building (as the National Museum of Natural History was originally known) opened its doors to the public on March 17, 1910, in order to provide the Smithsonian Institution with more space for collections and research. The building was not fully completed until June 1911. The structure cost $3.5 million (about $86.5 million in inflation-adjusted 2018) dollars. The Neoclassical style building was the first structure constructed on the north side of the National Mall as part of the 1901 McMillan Commission plan. In addition to the Smithsonian’s natural history collection, it also housed the American history, art, and cultural collections.

This structure was designed by the D.C. architectural firm of Hornblower & Marshall. The main building has an overall area of 1,500,000 square feet (140,000 m²) with 325,000 square feet (30,200 m²) of exhibition and public space and houses over 1,000 employees. The museum’s collections contain over 126 million specimens of plants, animals, fossils, minerals, rocks, meteorites, human remains, and human cultural artifacts. It is also home to about 185 professional natural-history scientists — the largest group of scientists dedicated to the study of natural and cultural history in the world. In 2016, with 7.1 million visitors, it was the fourth most visited museum in the world and the most visited natural-history museum in the world.

When Detroit philanthropist Charles Lang Freer donated his private art collection to the Smithsonian and funds to build the museum to hold it (which was named the Freer Gallery), it was among the Smithsonian’s first major donations from a private individual. Freer owned the largest collection of works by American artist James McNeill Whistler and became a patron and friend of the famously irascible artist. In 1908, Charles Moore, chairman of the United States Commission of Fine Arts persuaded Freer to permanently exhibit his 8,000-piece collection of Oriental art in Washington, D.C. Before then, Freer informally proposed to President Theodore Roosevelt that he give to the nation his art collection, funds to construct a building, and an endowment fund to provide for the study and acquisition of “very fine examples of Oriental, Egyptian, and Near Eastern fine arts.”

Construction of the gallery began in 1916 and was completed in 1921, after a delay due to World War I. On May 9, 1923, the Freer Gallery of Art was opened to the public. Designed by American architect and landscape planner Charles A. Platt, the Freer is an Italian Renaissance-style building inspired by Freer’s visits to palazzos in Italy.

Aerial view of the National Museum of American History, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, among other buildings in the Federal Triangle, is visible in the background. Photo taken on May 5, 2008.
Aerial view of the National Museum of American History, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, among other buildings in the Federal Triangle, is visible in the background. Photo taken on May 5, 2008.

More than 40 years would pass before the next museum, the Museum of History and Technology (renamed the National Museum of American History in 1980), opened in 1964. It was one of the last structures designed by the world-renowned firm of McKim, Mead & White. Among the items on display is the original Star-Spangled Banner. Each wing of the museum’s three exhibition floors is anchored by a landmark object to highlight the theme of that wing. These include the John Bull locomotive, the Greensboro, North Carolina lunch counter, and a one of a kind draft wheel. Landmarks from pre-existing exhibits include the 1865 Vassar Telescope, a George Washington Statue, a Red Cross ambulance, and a car from Disneyland’s Dumbo Flying Elephant ride.

The Anacostia Community Museum, an “experimental store-front” museum created at the initiative of Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, opened in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C., in 1967. That same year, the Smithsonian signed an agreement to take over the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration (now the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum). The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum opened in the Old Patent Office Building (built in 1867) on October 7, 1968. The reuse of an older building continued with the opening of the Renwick Gallery in 1972 in the 1874 Renwick-designed art gallery originally built by local philanthropist William Wilson Corcoran to house the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

The exterior of the Hirshorn Museum.
The exterior of the Hirshorn Museum. Photo taken on June 19, 2005.

The first new museum building to open since the National Museum of Natural History was the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which opened in 1974. The museum was initially endowed during the 1960s with the permanent art collection of Joseph H. Hirshhorn. It was designed by architect Gordon Bunshaft and was conceived as the United States’ museum of contemporary and modern art. The Hirshorn currently focuses its collection-building and exhibition-planning mainly on the post–World War II period, with particular emphasis on art made during the last 50 years.

The Hirshhorn is sited halfway between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol, anchoring the southernmost end of the so-called L’Enfant axis (perpendicular to the Mall’s green carpet). The National Archives/National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden across the Mall, and the National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian American Art building several blocks to the north, also mark this pivotal axis, a key element of both the 1791 city plan by Pierre L’Enfant and the 1901 MacMillan Plan.

The building itself is an attraction, an open cylinder elevated on four massive “legs,” with a large fountain occupying the central courtyard. Before architect Gordon Bunshaft designed the building, the Smithsonian staff reportedly told him that, if it did not provide a striking contrast to everything else in the city, then it would be unfit for housing a modern art collection.

The entrance hall of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. Among the visible aircraft are Spirit of The St. Louis, the Apollo 11 command module, Space Ship One, and X-1. Photo taken by Jawed Karim on June 11, 2010.
The entrance hall of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. Among the visible aircraft are Spirit of The St. Louis, the Apollo 11 command module, Space Ship One, and X-1. Photo taken by Jawed Karim on June 11, 2010.

The National Air and Space Museum, the Smithsonian’s largest in terms of floor space, opened in June 1976. The museum’s prominent site on the National Mall once housed the city’s armory, and during the Civil War, Armory Square Hospital nursed the worst wounded cases who were transported to Washington after battles. Originally called the National Air Museum when formed on August 12, 1946, by an act of Congress, some pieces in the museum collection date back to the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia after which the Chinese Imperial Commission donated a group of kites to the Smithsonian after Smithsonian Secretary Spencer Fullerton Baird convinced exhibiters that shipping them home would be too costly. The Stringfellow steam engine intended for aircraft was added to the collection in 1889, the first piece actively acquired by the Smithsonian now in the current NASM collection.

After the establishment of the National Air Museum, there was no one building that could hold all the items to be displayed, many obtained from the United States Army and United States Navy collections of domestic and captured aircraft from World War I. Some pieces were on display in the Arts and Industries Building, some were stored in the Aircraft Building (also known as the “Tin Shed”), a large temporary metal shed in the Smithsonian Castle’s south yard. Larger missiles and rockets were displayed outdoors in what was known as Rocket Row. The shed housed a large Martin bomber, a LePere fighter-bomber, and an Aeromarine 39B floatplane. Still, much of the collection remained in storage due to a lack of display space.

The combination of the large numbers of aircraft donated to the Smithsonian after World War II and the need for hangar and factory space for the Korean War drove the Smithsonian to look for its own facility to store and restore aircraft. The current Garber Facility was ceded to the Smithsonian by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in 1952 after the curator Paul E. Garber spotted the wooded area from the air. Bulldozers from Fort Belvoir and prefabricated buildings from the United States Navy kept the initial costs low.

National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Architect: Gyo Obata. Photo taken by David Bjorgen on May 16, 2005.
National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Architect: Gyo Obata. Photo taken by David Bjorgen on May 16, 2005.

The space race in the 1950s and 1960s led to the renaming of the museum to the National Air and Space Museum, and finally congressional passage of appropriations for the construction of the new exhibition hall, which opened July 1, 1976 at the height of the United States Bicentennial festivities under the leadership of Director Michael Collins, who had flown to the Moon on Apollo 11. The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center opened in 2003, funded by a private donation.

The museum received COSTAR, the corrective optics instrument installed in the Hubble Space Telescope during its first servicing mission (STS-61), when it was removed and returned to Earth after Space Shuttle mission STS-125. The museum also holds the backup mirror for the Hubble which, unlike the one that was launched, was ground to the correct shape. There were once plans for it to be installed to the Hubble itself, but plans to return the satellite to Earth were scrapped after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003; the mission was re-considered as too risky.

The Smithsonian has also been promised the International Cometary Explorer, which is currently in a solar orbit that occasionally brings it back to Earth, should NASA attempt to recover it.

The National Museum of African Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery opened in 1987 in a new, joint, underground museum between the Freer Gallery and the Smithsonian Castle. Its collections include 9,000 works of traditional and contemporary African art from both Sub-Saharan and Arab North Africa, 300,000 photographs, and 50,000 library volumes. It was the first institution dedicated to African art in the United States, and remains the largest collection. The Washington Post called the museum a mainstay in the international art world and the main venue for contemporary African art in the United States.

The Postal Square Building at 2 Massachusetts Avenue, NE in Washington, D.C. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It contains the Smithsonian Institution's National Postal Museum, serves as the headquarters of the United States Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, and houses a data center for the United States Senate. Photo taken on August 8, 2008.
The Postal Square Building at 2 Massachusetts Avenue, NE in Washington, D.C. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It contains the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum, serves as the headquarters of the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, and houses a data center for the United States Senate. Photo taken on August 8, 2008.
John Lennon's childhood stamp collection at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. Photo taken on September 17, 2016.
John Lennon’s childhood stamp collection at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. Photo taken on September 17, 2016.

Reuse of another old building came in 1993 with the opening of the National Postal Museum in the 1904 former City Post Office building, a few city blocks from the Mall. The museum houses many interactive displays about the history of the United States Postal Service and of mail service around the world. Also on display is a vast collection of stamps. The museum houses a gift shop and a separate stamp shop, along with exhibits on the Pony Express, the use of railroads with the mail, the preserved remains of Owney (the first unofficial postal mascot), and an exhibit on direct marketing called, “What’s in the Mail for You,” that produces a souvenir envelope with your name printed on it and a coupon for the gift shop. As a Smithsonian museum, admission is free. The museum also houses a library.

In September 2009, the National Postal Museum received a $8 million gift from investment firm founder William H. Gross to help finance the expansion of the museum. The museum now hosts the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery named in his honor.

National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C Photo taken on September 9, 2004.
National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C Photo taken on September 9, 2004.

In 2004, the Smithsonian opened the National Museum of the American Indian in a new building near the United States Capitol. Following controversy over the discovery by Native American leaders that the Smithsonian Institution held more than 12,000–18,000 Indian remains, mostly in storage, United States Senator Daniel Inouye introduced in 1989 the National Museum of the American Indian Act. Passed as Public Law 101-185, it established the National Museum of the American Indian as “a living memorial to Native Americans and their traditions”. The Act also required that human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony be considered for repatriation to tribal communities, as well as objects acquired illegally. Since 1989 the Smithsonian has repatriated over 5,000 individual remains — about 1/3 of the total estimated human remains in its collection.

On September 21, 2004, at the inauguration of the Museum, Senator Inouye addressed an audience of around 20,000 American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians, which was the largest gathering in Washington D.C. of indigenous people to its time.

The creation of the museum brought together the collections of the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City, founded in 1922, and the Smithsonian Institution. The Heye collection became part of the Smithsonian in June 1990, and represents approximately 85% of the holdings of the NMAI. The Heye Collection was formerly displayed in the Audubon Terrace location, but had long been seeking a new building.

Exterior of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C. Photo taken on July 20, 2016
Exterior of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C. Photo taken on July 20, 2016

On September 24, 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama headed the ceremony opening the latest Smithsonian museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in a new building near the Washington Monument on the National Mall, collaboratively designed by Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates and Davis Brody Bond. It has close to 37,000 objects in its collection related to such subjects as community, family, the visual and performing arts, religion, civil rights, slavery, and segregation. The museum has about 85,000 square feet of exhibition space with 12 exhibitions, 13 different interactives with 17 stations, and 183 videos housed on five floors.

Early efforts to establish a federally owned museum featuring African-American history and culture can be traced to 1915, although the modern push for such an organization did not begin until the 1970s. After years of little success, a much more serious legislative push began in 1988 that led to authorization of the museum in 2003. A site was selected in 2006.  Obama formally opened the new museum ten years later along with four generations of the Bonner family, from 99-year-old Ruth Bonner, who is the daughter of Elijah B. Odom of Mississippi, an escaped slave who lived through the years of Reconstruction and segregation, down to Ruth’s great-granddaughter Christine. Together with the Obamas, Ruth and her family rang the Freedom Bell to officially open the museum. The bell comes from the first Baptist church organized by and for African Americans, founded in 1776 in Williamsburg, Virginia, despite laws at the time making it unlawful for blacks to congregate or preach.

Map showing Smithsonian Institution museums on and near the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Map showing Smithsonian Institution museums on and near the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Nineteen museums and galleries, as well as the National Zoological Park, comprise the Smithsonian Institution museums. Eleven are on the National Mall, the park that runs between the Lincoln Memorial and the United States Capitol. Other museums are located elsewhere in Washington, D.C., with two more in New York City and one in Chantilly, Virginia.

The Smithsonian has close ties with 168 other museums in 39 states, Panama, and Puerto Rico. These museums are known as Smithsonian Affiliated museums. Collections of artifacts are given to these museums in the form of long-term loans. The Smithsonian also has a large number of traveling exhibitions, operated through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). In 2008, 58 of these traveling exhibitions went to 510 venues across the country.

The Smithsonian Institution announced in January 2015 that it is in talks to build its first permanent overseas exhibition space within London’s Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park.

Aerial view of the Smithsonian
Aerial view of the Smithsonian “Castle” and the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Smithsonian collections include 156 million artworks, artifacts, and specimens. The National Museum of Natural History houses 145 million of these specimens and artifacts. The Collections Search Center has 9.9 million digital records available online. The Smithsonian Institution Libraries hold 2 million library volumes. Smithsonian Archives hold 156,830 cubic feet of archival material.

The Smithsonian Institution has many categories of displays that can be visited at the museums. In 1912, First Lady Helen Herron Taft donated her inauguration gown to the museum to begin the First Ladies’ Gown display, one of the Smithsonian’s most popular exhibits. The museum displays treasures such as the Star-Spangled Banner, the stove pipe hat that was worn by President Lincoln, the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard Of Oz, and the original Teddy Bear that was named after President Theodore Roosevelt. In 2016, the Smithsonian’s Air & Space museum curators restored the large model Enterprise from the original Star Trek TV series.

The Institution publishes Smithsonian magazine monthly and Air & Space magazine bimonthly. Smithsonian was the result of Secretary of the Smithsonian S. Dillon Ripley asking the retired editor of Life magazine Edward K. Thompson to produce a magazine “about things in which the Smithsonian Institution is interested, might be interested or ought to be interested.” Another Secretary of the Smithsonian, Walter Boyne, founded Air & Space. Smithsonian Books is a trade publisher. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press is an academic publisher.

United States - Scott #943 (1946) first day cover
United States – Scott #943 (1946) first day cover

In 1940, Smithsonian Secretary Charles Greeley Abbott first proposed “a series of three stamps” to mark the Smithsonian’s approaching one hundredth anniversary. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was receptive, but Postmaster General Frank C. Walker recommended that Abbott hold his request until the fall of 1945, when the 1946 stamp program would be determined.

On March 6, 1946, Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, in his capacity as chancellor of the Smithsonian, wrote to President Harry S Truman and renewed the Institution’s request for a centenary commemorative stamp (there was no further mention of a series of stamps). Stone proposed that the stamp show the Institution’s first museum, the Norman-style castle designed by James Renwick, which occupies a place of prominence on the National Mall. The stamp’s violet brown color mimics the Castle’s Seneca Creek sandstone façade. The First Day of Issue ceremonies, which were broadcast on national radio, were held at the National Museum of Natural History on August 10, 1946.

The Smithsonian centenary stamp was denominated at three cents, which paid the domestic letter rate for surface letters weighing one ounce or less. This was also pursuant to Stone’s recommendation; he wanted the anniversary to be “brought to the attention of people throughout the country.” It was printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing on the rotary press in sheets of two hundred that were divided into four panes of fifty stamps each for sale at post offices, perforated 11 x 10½. William K. Schrage designed the stamp with significant input from Smithsonian officials. Edward R. Grove engraved the vignette. Charles A. Smith engraved the frame, lettering, and numerals. A total of 139,209,500 copies of the stamp were printed.

United States - Scott #1838 (1980) first day cover
United States – Scott #1838 (1980) first day cover
United States - Scott #3059 (1996) first day cover
United States – Scott #3059 (1996) first day cover

The Smithsonian Castle also appears on a stamp released by the United States on October 9, 1980, as part of the American Architecture series (Scott #1839) and one issued on February 7, 1996, to commemorate the Institution’s 150th anniversary (Scott #3059).

Flag of the United States, 1846
Flag of the Smithsonian Institution
Flag of the Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian Institution logo
Smithsonian Institution logo
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