Smithsonian Institution History

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Public Institution
Founded: 1846
Employees: 6,300
Revenues: $552 million (1998)

Company Perspectives:

The Institution is an independent instrumentality of the United States holding some 140 million artifacts and specimens in its trust for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge." It is also a center for research dedicated to public education, national service and scholarship in the arts, sciences, and history.

Company History:

The Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum, education, and research system in the world, with 16 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park, and ten research centers, all with free admittance. It is the home of the Hope Diamond, the Wright brothers' airplane, the original Star Spangled Banner, and some 140 million other items, and it attracts more than 28 million visitors a year. The Smithsonian also produces records and tapes through Smithsonian Folkways Recordings; publishes books and magazines; produces television documentaries, home videos, and radio shows; operates 16 museum stores and mail order and on-line catalogs; conducts numerous educational activities through its membership programs; and annually sponsors a juried craft show and the Festival of American Folklife. In fiscal 1998, 72 percent of the Smithsonian's revenues came from its annual federal appropriation. The remainder came from gifts and grants, contracts, investments, membership programs, and sales.

A Provision in a Will: 1829

The man who endowed the Smithsonian Institution was born in France in 1765, the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, the first Duke of Northumberland, and Elizabeth Keate Hungerford Macie, a widow connected to the royal family. Named James Lewis Macie, he took his father's name after his mother's death in 1800.

A graduate of Oxford and an avid scientist, James Smithson traveled throughout Europe studying chemistry, mineralogy, and geology. He wrote 27 articles for scientific journals dealing with topics ranging from a better way to make coffee to the chemical makeup of a woman's teardrop. His personal library contained 213 volumes, and a type of zinc carbonate was renamed smithsonite in his honor.

When Smithson died in 1829, he left the bulk of his estate to his nephew, Henry Hungerford. A clause in his will, however, stated that should Hungerford die without heirs (legitimate or illegitimate), the estate would go to "the United States of America to found at Washington, under the name of Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge ..."

Smithson's provision was newsworthy in both Europe and the United States when it first became known, and newspapers tried to figure out why this man, who had never visited the United States, might leave the nation his estate. Although he may have had other reasons, one purpose was revenge: "My name," Smithson wrote, "shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Northumberlands and Percys are extinct and forgotten."

What Now?: 1835--46

When Henry Hungerford died childless in 1835, the country, or at least those governing it, had to decide whether to accept the estate. President Andrew Jackson thought it was a good idea, but was not sure it was constitutional to accept the bequest. When he asked Congress to pass legislation making that possible, he ran into opposition from those who believed, as the Smithsonian accounted, that "acceptance of the Smithson bequest ... on behalf of the entire nation would abridge states' rights." The two senators from South Carolina were among the strongest opponents. Senator John C. Calhoun believed Congress had no authority to accept the gift, and Senator William Campbell Preston, while also questioning the constitutionality, complained that "[E]very whippersnapper vagabond ... might think it proper to have his name distinguished in the same way."

Despite such concerns, Congress authorized the acceptance of the bequest on July 1, 1836 and established a select committee to decide what to do with the estate, then worth $515,169. The nation spent the next ten years debating what this new institution should be. The first proposals were for a national university&mdashø train teachers, to teach natural history, to teach the classics, to improve social conditions through applied sciences. Over the years, the debate broadened to create a national museum, an institute to promote science, a national library, an institute to support basic scientific research, or a national observatory.

Finally, on August 10, 1846, legislation containing many of these ideas, but eliminating the national university, was signed by President James K. Polk. The "Act To Establish the Smithsonian Institution" created a charitable trust, with its administration, independent of the government, the responsibility of the Institution's Secretary and Board of Regents, consisting of three members of the House of Representatives, three Senators, and nine private citizens appointed by a joint resolution of Congress. The vice-president of the United States and the chief justice of the Supreme Court served as ex officio members.

Creating the Institution: 1846--78

The Board of Regents selected Joseph Henry, a prominent physicist, as the first Secretary, or chief executive. Henry envisioned the Smithsonian as a scientific research institute and undertook such activities as organizing volunteer weather observers who telegraphed weather information from around the country to the Smithsonian where scientists collected and recorded the data. Henry also initiated the research report series Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge to overcome the high cost of scientific publication. In 1850 he created the International Exchange Service, a low-cost system whereby American scientists could gain access to scholarly publications from Europe and elsewhere.

The legislation that created the Institution required that the public have access to the Institution. Henry himself conducted public lectures, along with "a number of distinguished gentlemen ... whose character will tend to give due importance to the communications."

In 1855 Henry moved his family into the second floor of the newly completed Smithsonian Building. Designed by James Renwick, Jr., it resembled a 12th century Italian Romanesque castle and housed offices, laboratories, art gallery, science museum, and lecture hall, with living space for resident scientists in the tower. The red brick building quickly became known as "The Castle," and when Henry's meteorologists received word of impending storms, they signaled nearby ports from the tower. Henry worked hard to keep his Institution separate from politics so as not to endanger support in Congress. He took no position on Darwin's theory of evolution and made sure no flag of any sort flew over the Smithsonian Building during the Civil War.

In 1879 Congress established the Smithsonian's Bureau of Ethnology, and its head, Civil War veteran and scientist John Wesley Powell, initiated wide-ranging research in archeology, linguistics, and physical anthropology. Powell was also a director of the U.S. Geological Survey, and according to Ken Ringle in a Washington Post article, "The linkage would become something of a model in future years for the Smithsonian. It put science to work for the U.S. government while the quasi-independence of the institution and its strong-willed leaders served to insulate scholars and scientists from the political pressures of the day."

Developing a National Museum: 1850--87

When Henry died in 1878, he was succeeded by his assistant of 28 years, Spencer Fullerton Baird. An avid naturalist and collector, Baird had received the first grant from the Institution for scientific exploration and field research in 1848. Two years later he arrived at the Smithsonian with two railroad cars full of natural specimens, considerably augmenting the Institution's few boxes of minerals and plants.

As Assistant Secretary, he was in charge of the Department of Exploration, and his efforts included teaching a generation of naturalists how to prepare specimens for museum collections. He instructed and supplied naturalists attached to just about any expedition heading west, making the Smithsonian a center for information about the natural history of North America. In 1858 the Congress designated the Smithsonian The National Museum of the United States.

In 1876 the United States celebrated its Centennial with an exposition in Philadelphia. When the exposition closed, 42 boxcars of artifacts were donated to the Smithsonian, ranging from an 1876 locomotive from California to Samuel F.B. Morse's original telegraph to military uniforms to 19th century household items. Needing more space for all of these artifacts, the Smithsonian erected the U.S. National Museum (now the Arts and Industries Building), which opened in 1881.

In 1883 the Smithsonian accepted from the National Institute museum at the Patent Office a collection that included George Washington memorabilia. By the end of Baird's tenure as Secretary in 1887, the Smithsonian was far more than an institute for scientific research. The National Museum had more than 2.5 million artifacts and specimens, organized into collections that concentrated on the natural history and people of North America and on the country's national identity.

Animals, Art, and War Machines: 1887--1963

Samuel Langley, a physician, astronomer, and aircraft inventor, succeeded Baird and served until 1906. One of his first actions was to create the Children's Room at the Castle, claiming "Knowledge begins in wonder." During his tenure, the Institution established the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (1890) and the National Zoological Park (1891), the first zoo created with a mission of breeding native wildlife.

Langley left one legacy that was less enriching. For nearly 40 years, the Smithsonian claimed that Langley built the "first man carrying plane capable of sustained flight," beating the Wright brothers. Not until 1942, when the Institution corrected its records, did Orville Wright agree to place the original Flyer in the Smithsonian.

In 1910 the third Smithsonian building opened, the National Museum of Natural History, with nearly 11 acres of floor space that also housed offices and art works and was the first Smithsonian museum to be open on Sunday. Charles Freer's donation of his priceless collection of American and Oriental art greatly enhanced the Smithsonian's reputation and added significantly to its art holdings. The Freer Gallery, built especially for the collection, opened in 1923. The construction was paid for with an additional $1 million Freer contributed for that purpose.

After World War I, tanks, uniforms, and gas masks were placed on exhibit, an indication of the continuing relationship between Smithsonian scientists and the government, with an increasing emphasis on research useful to the military. The scientists' investigations over the years ranged from recoilless gun design to rocketry and shark repellent, and their research on tropical islands provided information for the military during the war in the Pacific.

In 1946 Barro Colorado Island in Panama, the first biological reserve in the Americas, became part of the Smithsonian. The reserve had been established in 1923, on an island created when the Panama Canal was built. Scientists conducted long-term studies in tropical biology on the Isthmus and established a marine science program.

Reshaping an Institution: 1964--69

The 20 years in which Sidney Dillon Ripley was Secretary was a period of tremendous growth for the Smithsonian. An ornithologist, Ripley believed that museums should be "points of contact" with all people, not just some place to visit on a Sunday afternoon or a high school field trip. He also wanted the Smithsonian to be a center of ideas and a "company of scholars."

The National Museum of History and Technology (now the Museum of American History) opened in 1964, and Ripley set out to make the Mall between the Smithsonian's buildings more inviting to people. At his urging, roads were closed to traffic and replaced with broad paths lined with benches. Ripley also installed a carousel in front of the Castle and, in 1965, held the first Festival of American Folklife, filling the Mall for 12 weeks with exhibits, dancers, food, and music from all over the United States and 35 other countries.

Ripley also pushed the Smithsonian's museum offerings beyond the Mall, and outside Washington, DC. In 1967--68 four new Smithsonian museums opened. The Anacostia Museum brought a museum to the people of the southeastern section of the city and examined the African American experience in Washington, DC. The Old Patent Office, a few blocks north of the Mall and once the site of the National Institute museum, became the home of the National Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery. In New York City, Ripley leased the Fifth Avenue Carnegie mansion to house the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, which became part of the Smithsonian.

Ripley also enhanced the Institution's research activities. He established the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center on Chesapeake Bay in 1965 and, in 1996, renamed Barro Colorado Institute the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

Ripley's Building Boom: 1970--84

The decade of the 1970s saw the fruition of several of Ripley's dreams and efforts. He had worked hard to convince Joseph Hirshhorn to donate his massive collection of modern art to the Smithsonian and to gain support and money to build a museum for the works. At the same time he persuaded President Lyndon Johnson to save the abandoned Renwick Gallery from being torn down and make it once again a public museum. In 1972 the Smithsonian opened the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on the Mall and the Renwick Gallery a block from the White House. Many people laughed at the Hirshhorn's bagel-like shape or questioned whether crafts (the focus of the Renwick) were art, but both additions proved to be popular.

Broadening the reach of (and the support for) the Smithsonian, Ripley began publishing the monthly Smithsonian magazine and instituted Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), sending wide varieties of exhibits to communities around the country. He also added the Archives of American Art to the Smithsonian and made appropriations for the National Zoo part of the overall Smithsonian requests to Congress. This latter step increased and stabilized funds for the zoo and made it possible to renovate and add facilities there.

Even as he broadened the scope of the Smithsonian, Ripley did not forget its scientific purposes. In the early 1970s STRI began expanding its work to conduct tropical research throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa. He also increased research at the National Zoo and, in conjunction with Harvard University, established an astrophysical observatory in Arizona.

One of Ripley's major contributions, and the most visited museum in the world, the National Air and Space Museum, opened in 1976. Two years later the Smithsonian took over an existing collection, establishing the National Museum of African Art. Ripley also began the Smithsonian's first inventory, an undertaking that would take five years and cost $8 million. The result: fully indexed and cross-referenced computer files identifying some 100 million items, including 114,429 bird's eggs, 20 pipe organs, and 14 million postage stamps.

Ripley made a significant impact on the Smithsonian, on Washington, DC, and on the field of museums. During his two decades as Secretary, eight new museums and seven new research or conservation and storage facilities opened, outreach efforts proved successful, the number of visitors more than doubled, and the annual budget grew to more than $300 million, with half coming from Congress.

Changing Financial Picture: 1984--94

Robert McCormick Adams, an archeologist, served as Secretary from 1984 to 1994 and continued to make the Smithsonian an open, inviting place. In 1987 the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian Art opened, and the Anacostia Museum, which had expanded to include the Center for African American History and Culture, moved to a new building. In 1989 Congress established the National Museum of the American Indian and a year later the National Postal Museum. In 1993 the Postal Museum's collection of postal history and philatelic items moved to its new home in the historic City Post Office, a Beaux Arts building a few blocks north of the Mall. In 1994 the George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian opened in lower Manhattan, in the historic Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House.

During the 1990s museums across the country faced service cuts and staff reductions as federal money for the arts decreased. Although its federal appropriation actually increased, the money did not keep up with inflation, and the Smithsonian was forced to eliminate extended summer hours, offer buyouts to staff, leave some vacancies unfilled, and change exhibitions less often. Many museums, including the Smithsonian, turned to corporate sponsors for projects and exhibits.

The ability to raise money and extensive management skills were critical considerations in the selection of Ira Michael Heyman as the tenth Secretary of the Smithsonian in 1994. The retired chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley and a lawyer, Heyman's selection broke the tradition of the Secretary being a scientist.

1994 to the Present

Heyman spent five years as Secretary, successfully steering the institution through financial difficulties, unifying its management structure, and improving relationships with Congress. He generated several very large gifts and initiated a capital campaign. He also promoted the Smithsonian through extensive exchange programs and an exceedingly popular web site. But it was a less than tranquil period, as controversies erupted over various exhibitions ranging from the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, to a forum at the 50th anniversary of Israel.

The issues of what and how things were displayed at a museum was not new, nor was it limited to the Smithsonian Institution. At its core were differences about the role of public museums: to present one or different viewpoints, to display revered objects or explain (interpret) history. Pressure for the Smithsonian and other public institutions to present noncontroversial exhibits was seen by some as appropriate and others as censorship. The growing dependence on corporate funding only served to expand the voices influencing such decisions. Finances and politics had been intertwined in the Smithsonian's role since the institution was established. Heyman's successors each would make their mark on that relationship and on "The Nation's Attic" itself.

Further Reading:

  • Arnett, Elsa C., "150 Years at the Smithsonian," News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.), August 10, 1996, p. D1.
  • Bonner, Alice, "Smithsonian Finds Its Attic Full of Treasure," Washington Post, August 27, 1981, p. A1.
  • Davis, Lou, "Who Was on First, First?," Air Transport World, January 1993, p. 85.
  • Forgey, Benjamin, "Ripley's Believe It and Build," Washington Post, September 15, 1984, p. C1.
  • "From Smithson to Smithsonian: The Birth of an Institution," http://www.sil.si.edu/exhibits/smithson, 1998.
  • Goldberger, Paul, "Historical Shows on Trial: Who Judges?," New York Times, February 11, 1996, p. B1.
  • Goode, George Brown, "Biographical Sketch of Spencer Fullerton Baird," Marine Fisheries Review (U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington, DC), January 1, 1996, p. 40.
  • Mulligan, Kate, "Nation's Venerable Institution," Washington Times, April 25, 1996, p. M4.
  • Page, Jake, "From Back-Lot Menagerie to Nascent BioPark in Only a Hundred Years," Smithsonian, July 1989, p. 26.
  • Parks, Edward, "Secretary S. Dillon Ripley Retires After Twenty Years of Innovation," Smithsonian, September 1984, p. 76.
  • Ringle, Ken, "Smithsonian: The Greatest of the Mall," Washington Post, August 10, 1996, p. A1.
  • "The Smithsonian Institution Fact Sheet," Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, March 1998.
  • Trescott, Jacqueline, "Heyman To Leave Smithsonian," Washington Post, January 23, 1999, p. A1.
  • Van Dyne, Larry, "Storming the Castle," Washingtonian, August 1994.
  • Wellborn, Stanley N., "New Guard for Treasures at Smithsonian," U.S. News & World Report, September 24, 1984, p. 68.
  • Wiencek, Henry, "Smithsonian Institution," in The Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: Virginia and the Capital Region, New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989, p. 47.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 27. St. James Press, 1999.

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