Who Started the Smithsonian Institute? An Introduction to the Smithsonian on the National Mall

Who Started the Smithsonian Institute blog post image

I’m sure you’ve heard of the Smithsonian Institute and you may even have visited one of its many world-class museums, galleries, or zoo in Washington, DC, but do you know how it came to be?!

Growing up in Virginia, my parents often took us to the museums in Washington, DC. I didn’t even realize until I was in college that you usually have to pay admission to go to a museum! I was used to visiting world-class museums for FREE. Now I know that I have one man to thank for his incredible gift that started it all.

Thank you James Smithson!

James Smithson

James Smithson, 1816

The Smithsonian Institute is the largest museum, education, and research complex in the world and it was all started by a man who never even set foot in Washington, DC!

James Smithson was born in France and raised in Britain. He was a scientist who discovered a mineral called Smithsonite, named after him and which you can see at the National Museum of Natural History.

James Smithson died in 1829 and in his will, left his estate to his nephew with one stipulation, that if his nephew died without heirs, the money would go “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge”.

His nephew was still rather young though, so no one really expected this to come to fruition.

Six years later, his nephew died without heirs. This meant that Smithson’s bequest of approximately $500,000 would come to the United States.

Can you guess what James Smithson’s gift of $500,000 in 1835 is worth today?

Over $11 million dollars!

President Andrew Jackson sent a diplomat over to England to collect the money in 1836, and he returned with it 2 years later in August 1838. It weighed down 105 sacks containing over 100k gold sovereigns! Can you imagine being responsible for that?!

For 8 years, Congress couldn’t agree on how to interpret Smithson’s instructions to use the money “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge”, but finally Massachusetts Representative and former president, John Quincy Adams persuaded Congress to use it to establish an institution for learning.

President James K. Polk signed the legislation August 10, 1846 and it has grown into the “nation’s attic” with holdings of over 154 million items!

The Smithsonian Institute is made up of 19 museums and a zoo. Most are located in Washington, DC. In fact, as you walk the National Mall, it’s practically covered by the Smithsonian, can you name them all?!

The Smithsonian Buildings on Independence Avenue are….

Starting at the Washington Monument and walking towards the U.S. Capitol Building…

The Smithsonian Buildings on Constitution Avenue are….

Starting at the U.S. Capitol and walking back towards the Washington Monument…

Wait! What about the National Gallery of Art?!

Well, here’s a little known fact, it’s not actually part of the Smithsonian Institute. Although the National Gallery of Art is free to visit and a world-class art gallery, it’s not part of the Smithsonian Institute, so its history will need to be covered in a future blog post.

There ARE a few more Smithsonian museums in DC that are just off the National Mall including…

There you have it…what the Smithsonian Institute is and how it got started.

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Caroline M. Harper

I curate the best stories and facts that grip children's curiosities wherever we go to create interactive self-guided family tours for children (and their families) in the Washington, DC area. I started the Field Trip Club in 2011 to help you make stress-free memories!

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