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Establishing the Smithsonian Institution

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 NORTH FRONT, FROM THE NORTHWEST - Smithsonian Institution Building, 1000 Jefferson Drive, between Ninth & Twelfth Streets, Southwest, Washington, District of Columbia, DC [Photo courtesy of Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress]
NORTH FRONT, FROM THE NORTHWEST – Smithsonian Institution Building, 1000 Jefferson Drive, between Ninth & Twelfth Streets, Southwest, Washington, District of Columbia, DC.  // [Photo courtesy of Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress]
The sight of construction cranes in Washington DC is nothing new; the city is constantly changing and renewing.  The cranes and I-beams peeking above the trees near the Washington Monument hearken the arrival of the newest Smithsonian museum: the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NAAHC).  In the 15 years I’ve been in DC, I’ve only seen two other projects from start to finish – that of the National World War II Memorial and the National Museum of the American Indian (not counting the terracing around and restoration of the Washington Monument).  It got me wondering what legislation might be involved in the establishment of a new museum.

You may know the story of James Smithson, the English scientist who bequeathed the equivalent of US$541,379.63 to the United States for the founding of the Smithsonian Institution, “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”  This donation came as a surprise because the Englishman had never traveled to the United States.

Congress established a Board of Regents in 1894 to conduct the business of the Institution and specifically named titled officials and other people to compose the group: “the Vice President; the Chief Justice of the United States; three Members of the Senate; three Members of the House of Representatives, and; nine other persons other than Members of Congress, two of whom shall be resident in the city of Washington, and seven of whom shall be inhabitants of some State, but no two of them of the same State.”  The President of the United States selects the Senators who will serve; the Speaker of the House selects the Representatives; and Congress selects the other nine individuals via a joint resolution.

In a given law, Congress establishes each new museum, sometimes describing with detail the designated site for the new building and granting powers to remove any existing structures from the site.  Among the laws establishing the museums in the early to mid-twentieth century, no consistent pattern of legislating appears.  For example, only a few of the laws mention the establishment of a governing body for the individual museum (a commission, a board of trustees, or council – the exact term has changed over the years and depended on the extent of the body’s governance), its authority and duties, and some specifics about its membership composition.

I am finding that in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century the laws establishing a new museum tend to be much more detailed in the creation of the new entity.  The law establishing the National Museum of the American Indian, for example,  includes details on the square footage of the finished building, the handling of Indian human remains, and the transfer of assets from the Heye Foundation (which made up the core of the collections).  The law establishing the NAAHC was approved December 16, 2003, and it includes the initial amount of appropriations, percentage of cost-sharing (federal versus non-federal funds), specific educational program priorities, and the nine organizations and Congressional committees that must be consulted during the siting of the building.

Establishing the entity through law is just one part of what it takes to raise a new museum.  Indeed, it is dizzying to think of the effort from all sides – fundraising, architecture and construction, exhibition curation, visitor management, and more – involved in creating a national institution to preserve cultural heritage.

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