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Definition: Smithsonian Institution from Philip's Encyclopedia

US independent trust, based in Washington, D.C. Created in 1846, the Institution funds research, publishes the results of explorations and investigations, and preserves for reference more than 65 million items of scientific, cultural, and historical interest.

Summary Article: Smithsonian Institution
from Encyclopedia of American Studies

The Smithsonian Institution was established by the U.S. Congress in 1846, carrying out a bequest by James Smithson (1765–1829), an enigmatic English scientist who left his fortune to the United States to found an institution “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Smithson's vague mandate left his wishes open to wide interpretation and placed the new organization at the center of mid-nineteenth-century debates over the nature of American civilization. Among the proposals for Smithson's institution was that it serve as the national museum to house the arts, handicrafts, history, natural resources, and technology of the young country. As the founding fathers passed into a pantheon of national memory, their images and possessions gained iconic status. The United States needed a temple of national identity on a par with those of Europe to celebrate its achievements. In 1858 the Smithsonian was given charge of the U.S. National Museum.

However, the first Smithsonian secretaries focused on scientific research; thus, the art and historical collections languished during the nineteenth century. Scientific research is carried on at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The National Zoological Park was opened in 1891 to showcase the nation's fauna. The National Museum of Natural History collections grew rapidly, documenting the natural resources of new territory as the continent was settled. Non-Western cultures, including Native Americans, were displayed in the anthropological halls. Debates over the status of Native Americans drew the Smithsonian into its first national controversies in the 1880s. In 1968 the museum was renamed the Museum of Natural History/Museum of Man to better describe the museum's collections.

The institution's early art collections included copies of old masters, portraits of significant Americans, and paintings by such celebrated American artists as John Mix Stanley and Charles Bird King. An 1865 Castle fire destroyed much of the art collection. It was not until 1906 that a National Gallery of Art, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), was established. During the twentieth century the Smithsonian's art collections grew and diversified. In 1906 Charles Lang Freer donated his collection of Oriental art and American impressionist paintings to create the Freer Gallery of Art. A National Portrait Gallery was established in 1962, to preserve, study, and display the images of significant Americans. In 1968 the American Art Museum and the Portrait Gallery moved into a single building near the National Mall. The Archives of American Art became part of the Smithsonian in 1970 and was located in the American Art and Portrait Galleries. The SAAM's Renwick Gallery opened in 1972 to study American crafts. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden opened in 1973 to display modern art; its collections are not limited to American works. In 1967 the Smithsonian acquired the decorative-arts collections of the Cooper-Union in New York City, creating the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the national design museum. The National Museum of African Art was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1979. Arthur Sackler donated his collection of Middle Eastern and Asian art in 1983 to supplement the Freer collections, creating the Freer/Sackler Galleries. Located in the International Center, the Oriental and African art galleries are charged with teaching American and foreign visitors about these cultures.

The Smithsonian's historical collections date from the creation of the National Museum in 1858, with “relics” of such figures as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. The Smithsonian quickly became the “nation's attic,” preserving the memorabilia of the nation's heroes and of everyday life. In an era when academics focused on documents, the institution became the repository for American material culture. In 1912 First Lady Helen Herron Taft donated her inaugural gown, initiating the ever popular First Ladies' Gowns display. The National Museum of American History now houses such national treasures as the Star-Spangled Banner and Lincoln's stovepipe hat, and such icons of popular culture as the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz and the original Teddy bear named for Theodore Roosevelt. In the 1970s the museum expanded its vision to include the range of American cultures, such as African Americans and recent immigrants. Exhibits such as A Nation of Nations (1976); From Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration, 1915–1940 (1987); and A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the United States Constitution (1987) told the stories of the diverse cultures within the United States. A National Postal Museum was established as part of the American History Museum in 1990 to care for the philately collections.

The Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 was seminal in establishing the history of technology collections. The Smithsonian was charged with preparing all the U.S. government's exhibits at Philadelphia. When the fair closed, assistant secretary Spencer Baird convinced exhibitors to avoid the expense of shipping exhibits home by donating them to the Smithsonian. The museum thus acquired a fantastic collection of American technology, including transportation, steam power, ceramics and glass, and photography. The National Museum Building, now the Arts and Industries Building, opened in 1881 to house them. The history of technology collections grew rapidly with donations from industries and private collectors.

From the 1870s to 1896 the National Museum was directed by George Brown Goode, a naturalist who formulated a classification system for all specimens and artifacts, creating a universal order for all museum objects. After his death the history collections were placed within the department of anthropology. Curator Otis T. Mason influenced exhibits with his notions of a progression of cultures from “primitive” to industrialized. The museum's “synoptic series” portrayed a progression of cultures through the history of technology, in such areas as musical instruments, fiber arts, and watercraft. After the Natural History Building opened in 1911, the historical divisions were left on their own to develop displays on the history and technology of the nation. Efforts to secure a new building began in the 1920s, but the Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History, did not open until 1964. Its Archives Center, formed in 1982, supplements the artifact collections and documents American social history.

In 1946 a separate National Air Museum was authorized by the U.S. Congress, and in 1976 the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) opened on the Mall to commemorate American achievements in aeronautics and astronautics. In the 1990s NASM achieved notoriety for plans to exhibit the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945. Once again, the Smithsonian was thrust into national controversy and opened a scaled-down temporary exhibition in 1995.

The Smithsonian Institution Archives, which houses the records of the institution, has strong holdings in the history of expositions and museology in the United States. In 1967 the Smithsonian created the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum to establish a presence in the African American community. In the decades since, the Anacostia Museum has evolved into the Center for African American History and Culture, with exhibits in both the Anacostia Museum and the Arts and Industries Building. Every summer the Smithsonian Folklife Festival presents American and foreign crafts, folklore, and performing arts to the public. Created in 1967, the Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies houses a folklife archives and also manages Folkways Records, a distribution house for traditional music.

Another private collection found its way to the Smithsonian in 1989, when the National Museum of the American Indian became part of the institution. George Gustav Heye had amassed an eclectic collection of Native American artifacts. Located in both New York City and Washington, D.C., the Museum of the American Indian opened on the Mall in 2003 as a center for Native American culture.

The Smithsonian houses over 140 million artifacts, documents, and specimens. Scholars study American material culture as art, craft, cultural artifact, history, and technology. Thus, similar objects can be found and interpreted differently in the various museums. A single object, such as an engraving or photograph, can be viewed as an artwork in one of the art museums; a craft at the Renwick Gallery, Museum of Natural History, or Folklife Center; a historical artifact at the American History Museum, Anacostia Museum, or Air and Space Museum; a technological artifact at the American History Museum or Cooper-Hewitt Museum; or as documenting culture in the Natural History Museum/Museum of Man, Museum of the American Indian, or Museum of African Art. As a center for the study of American artifacts, documents, and folklore, the Smithsonian remains at the center of debates about American culture. Changing views on non-Western and American cultures have forced the institution to reassess and expand its presentation of American material culture in recent decades.

Railroad exhibit. c.1920-c.1950. Theodor Horydczak, photographer. Theodor Horydczak Collection, Library of Congress.

Smithsonian Institution Building. Washington, D.C. c.1920-c.1950. Theodor Horydczak, photographer. Theodor Horydczak Collection, Library of Congress.

Smithsonian Institution Building. Washington, D.C. 2007. Noclip, photographer. Wikimedia Commons.

  • Ewing, Heather, The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian (Bloomsbury 2007).
  • Ewing, Heather; Amy Ballard, A Guide to Smithsonian Architecture (Smithsonian Bks. 2009).
  • Fink, Lois Marie, A History of the Smithsonian American Art Museum: The Intersection of Art, Science, and Bureaucracy (Univ. of Mass. Press 2007).
  • Hellman, Geoffrey T., The Smithsonian Octopus on the Mall (Lippincott 1967).
  • Henson, Pamela M., ‘Objects of Curious Research': The History of Science and Technology at the Smithsonian, Isis 90 (1999): 1-19.
  • Hinsley, Curtis M. Jr., Savages and Scientists: The Smithsonian Institution and the Development of American Anthropology, 1846-1910 (Smithsonian Inst. Press 1981).
  • Kagan, Neil, ed., Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection (Smithsonian Bks. 2013).
  • Oehser, Paul H., The Smithsonian Institution, 2nd ed., rev. and exp. (Westview Press 1983).
  • Park, Edwards, Secretary S. Dillon Ripley Retires after Twenty Years of Innovation, Smithsonian (Sept. 1984): 77-85.
  • Post, Robert C., Who Owns America's Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press 2013).
  • Stock, Ann Marie, Representing the Nation: Latino Art at the Smithsonian Institution, Latin American Perspectives 39, no. 3 (2012):120-130.
  • Yochelson, Ellis Leon, Smithsonian Institution Secretary, Charles Doolittle Walcott (Kent State Univ. Press 2001).
  • Pamela M. Henson
    Copyright 2018 The American Studies Association

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