How Did the Smithsonian Institution Begin?

Quck answer

The Smithsonian Institution was established in 1846 through the bequest of James Smithson, a British scientist. Smithson left his estate to the United States to create “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” The institution was named after him and has since grown into a vast complex of museums, research centers, and educational programs. Its mission is to promote the understanding and preservation of art, history, culture, and science. Today, the Smithsonian is a world-renowned institution, attracting millions of visitors each year and contributing significantly to the advancement of knowledge and the dissemination of information.


Have you ever been to a museum? How about a zoo? Many people of all ages enjoy the opportunity to learn and have fun in these places. Does that sound familiar? If it does, then you might already be familiar with the subject of today’s Wonder of the Day. That’s right, today we’re exploring the origins of the Smithsonian Institution!

Today, the Smithsonian Institution is a well-known name. People in the United States and around the world recognize it as a hub of knowledge and learning. Given its fame, it may come as a surprise to many that the Smithsonian is less than 200 years old.

So, how did the Smithsonian Institution come to be? The story begins with a British scientist named James Smithson. Throughout his life, Smithson didn’t have any children. When he passed away, he left all his belongings to his nephew.

In his will, Smithson also outlined what should happen if his nephew died without an heir. In that case, he wanted his estate to be given to the United States to establish the Smithsonian Institution. He envisioned it as “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

In 1829, James Smithson passed away. Just six years later, his nephew died without leaving any descendants. This is how, in 1935, the United States received a little over $500,000 to establish the Smithsonian Institution. After a decade of discussions about its purpose, the Smithsonian was officially founded on August 10, 1846.

Today, the Smithsonian Institution comprises 19 museums and the National Zoo. It houses nearly 155 million artifacts, although only about one percent of these are on display at any given time. Admission is free for the public at all locations.

What can you see at the Smithsonian? Its museums showcase a wide range of interesting items. From priceless artworks at the American Art Museum to fossils at the Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian offers something for everyone.

Over the years, a few specific artifacts at the Smithsonian have captivated the public’s attention. For example, in 2016, a new species of dolphin was discovered in the institute’s archives. Cultural items like the red slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” are also popular favorites.

James Smithson himself eventually became a part of the institution. Although he never visited the United States during his lifetime, his remains were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution Building in 1904. Today, his crypt still resides there.

Have you ever had the chance to visit the Smithsonian? If not, we hope you get the opportunity one day! Which of its museums would you most like to explore? Seeing priceless artifacts in person is a wonderful way to learn about the world we live in.

Give It a Try

Are you ready to keep learning? Find a friend or family member who can assist you with the activities below!

  • Discover more about the museums and zoo at the Smithsonian. Which one would you love to personally visit? Write a letter or email to a friend or family member describing the Smithsonian institution you are most interested in. Provide at least three reasons why this museum or zoo captures your curiosity.
  • Get a glimpse inside the National Museum of Natural History with these virtual tours! What was the most fascinating thing you learned from the tour you took? Summarize your observations for a friend or family member and discuss the knowledge you gained.
  • Envision the opportunity to create your own museum. What would it focus on? Will it showcase art or scientific discoveries? Consider your interests and determine which would be the most suitable theme for your museum. Then, design a brochure on paper or using Canva to educate people about your new museum. Include images and describe at least five attractions visitors can expect to see there.

Sources for Further Exploration

  • https://www.si.edu/about/history (accessed 17 Mar. 2021)
  • https://www.si.edu/newsdesk/factsheets/brief-history-smithsonian-institution (accessed 17 Mar. 2021)
  • https://www.si.edu/newsdesk/factsheets/smithsonian-institution-fact-sheet (accessed 17 Mar. 2021)
  • https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/503433/12-facts-about-smithsonians-collections (accessed 17 Mar. 2021)
  • https://learnersdictionary.com/ (accessed 17 Mar. 2021)

FAQ

1. How did the Smithsonian Institution come into existence?

The Smithsonian Institution was established through the will of James Smithson, a British scientist. In 1826, Smithson left his entire estate to the United States for the creation of an institution “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” This unexpected bequest led to the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846, which is now the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex.

2. What is the mission of the Smithsonian Institution?

The mission of the Smithsonian Institution is to promote the understanding and appreciation of art, history, science, and culture. It aims to preserve and interpret the collections it holds, conduct scientific research, and provide educational programs for the public. The institution operates various museums, research centers, and cultural programs, all dedicated to advancing knowledge and inspiring curiosity.

3. How many museums and research centers does the Smithsonian Institution have?

The Smithsonian Institution encompasses 19 museums, 9 research centers, and the National Zoo. These museums cover a wide range of subjects, including natural history, art, air and space, American history, and more. The research centers focus on areas such as tropical biology, astrophysics, molecular evolution, and social and cultural studies. Each museum and research center offers unique exhibits and programs.

4. How does the Smithsonian Institution acquire its collections?

The Smithsonian Institution acquires its collections through a combination of donations, purchases, and fieldwork. Many individuals and organizations donate objects of historical, scientific, or cultural significance to the institution. The Smithsonian also has a dedicated team of researchers who conduct fieldwork and expeditions to collect specimens and artifacts. Additionally, the institution may purchase items for its collections if they align with its mission and meet certain criteria.

5. How does the Smithsonian Institution contribute to research and education?

The Smithsonian Institution is a leader in scientific research and education. Its researchers conduct groundbreaking studies across various disciplines, from biology to anthropology to astrophysics. The institution also offers educational programs for all ages, including workshops, lectures, and online resources. These initiatives aim to foster a deeper understanding of the world and inspire the next generation of scientists, historians, artists, and scholars.

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