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A black and white photo of visitors in a Smithsonian museum rotunda, admiring a life-size model of an elephant
O'Halloran, Thomas J., photographer. Smithsonian Institute, Sept. 8, 1971. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //

The Smithsonian Institution: The History of the World’s Largest Museum and Research Complex

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The following is a guest post by Heather Flynn, a former intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She earned an M.A. in museum studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Over 175 years ago, on August 10, 1846, President James K. Polk signed into law an act (ch. 178, 9 Stat. 102) establishing the Smithsonian Institution. As the world’s largest museum and research complex, the Smithsonian Institution is comprised of 21 museums, multiple research centers, and the National Zoo. While the Smithsonian has been enriching American culture through “preserving heritage, discovering new knowledge, and sharing our resources with the world,” it maintains a unique position as an “independent federal trust.”

James Smithson and the Smithsonian’s Origin

James Smithson was born in 1765 in France with the given name of James Lewis Macie. Because Smithson’s father was English, at age 10, James Smithson changed his surname as well as his citizenship, becoming a naturalized British citizen. According to the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Smithson grew up to be an advocate for scientific exploration and knowledge sharing.

Smithson died in 1829. Despite having never visited the United States, Smithson bequeathed a large sum of money to the country to open what would eventually become the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.  His will included a stipulation that the portion of the estate set aside for an institution would be made available only if his nephew did not produce an heir.

A color photo of the Smithsonian castle, a red brick building with turrets and dozens of windows. A green lawn with a flower garden is in the foreground.
Smithsonian Castle, Washington, D.C. Highsmith, Carol M., photographer. Between 1980 and 2006. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. //

Founding the Smithsonian

When Smithson’s nephew died without an heir, the U.S. government was notified of Smithson’s bequest in 1835. President Jackson alerted Congress to the sizable donation, which led to several debates over whether to accept the funds. Advocates of states’ rights, such as Senators John C. Calhoun and William C. Preston, believed using Smithson’s funds to found a national institution was beyond the constitutional powers of the federal government. Those in favor of accepting Smithson’s bequest argued the United States could accept the money and establish the institution under article 1, section 8 of the U.S. Constitution.

Congress eventually agreed to accept the gift, totaling more than $500,000, and moved forward with deciding how best to allocate the money to fulfill Smithson’s vision. Eight years later, President Polk signed into law H.R. 5, the act establishing the Smithsonian Institution.

Institutional Administration

This act provided that the Smithsonian Institution was to be governed by a Board of Regents. (Sec. 2) The composition of this group has changed over the years, but its members currently include the Vice President, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, members of Congress, and several members of the public.

A black and white photo of several white men wearing suits and ties, seated in chairs.
Smithsonian Regents [including Coolidge, Taft], 2/11/27. Feb. 11, 1927. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. //

The act establishing the Smithsonian Institution further directed the Board of Regents “to select a suitable site for such building as may be necessary for the institution.” (Sec. 4.) The Board of Regents decided to build the headquarters in a “castle” designed by architect James Renwick, Jr. This building opened its doors in 1855 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian’s Place in the Federal System

The Smithsonian is not a traditional federal agency or department, but federal legislation governing its operations can be found under title 5 of the U.S. Code. The Smithsonian has been described as a government “establishment” or a “trust instrumentality of the United States.” Unlike traditional federal agencies, the Smithsonian “does not exercise regulatory powers, except over its own buildings and grounds,” and several federal laws governing federal agencies do not affect the Smithsonian’s administration, such as the Freedom of Information Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

Despite the unique nature of the Smithsonian’s place in the government, there is no doubt that it has enriched American culture for decades and will continue to do so for generations to come.

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  1. So cool!

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