Smithsonian Institution

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The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum and research complex, with 19 museums and galleries and the National Zoological Park (see list below).

Anacostia Community Museum
Arts and Industries Building*
Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum (New York City)
Freer Gallery of Art
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
National Air and Space Museum
National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (Chantilly, Va.)
National Museum of African American History and Culture**
National Museum of African Art
National Museum of American History
National Museum of the American Indian
National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center (New York City)
National Museum of Natural History
National Portrait Gallery
National Postal Museum
Renwick Gallery
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Smithsonian Institution Building (“Castle”)

  • The Arts and Industries Building is closed for renovation.
    • The National Museum of African American History and Culture is scheduled to open in 2015 on a National Mall site between the Washington Monument and the National Museum of American History.

The Budget
The Smithsonian’s federal appropriation for fiscal year 2008 was approximately $682 million. The Institution is approximately 70 percent federally funded (a combination of the congressional appropriation and federal grants and contracts).

In addition to the federal contribution, the Smithsonian has trust funds, which include both contributions from private sources (endowments; donations from individuals, corporations and foundations; and memberships) and revenues from the Smithsonian Enterprises operation, which includes the magazines, mail-order catalog, product development, entertainment, shops and restaurants, concessions and credit card alliances.

Museum Visitors
There were more than 25 million visitors to the museums and National Zoo in 2008.

Admission to all Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., is free. The museums are open seven days a week. (The Smithsonian is closed on Christmas Day.) Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. The Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery’s hours are 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. An information center is located in the Smithsonian Institution Building (“Castle”).

Research Facilities

  • Archives of American Art — An organization that acquires and preserves documents and memorabilia of American artists, collectors, critics and art societies.
  • Museum Conservation Institute — Located at the Museum Support Center in Suitland, Md., the center carries out research in the technical study, analysis and conservation methods of museum objects and related materials.
  • Conservation and Research Center — This 3,200-acre wooded area in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains (Front Royal, Va.) is a breeding preserve and study center for the National Zoo’s rare and endangered animals.
  • Smithsonian Marine Station — Scientists working at this research center located in Fort Pierce, Fla., study estuarine and marine environments along Florida’s east coastline and adjacent ocean shelves, seeking basic information about natural and man-made causes of stress and environmental change. The station is operated by the National Museum of Natural History.
  • Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory—Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory is a partner with the Harvard College Observatory in the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, where more than 300 scientists are engaged in a broad program of research in astronomy, astrophysics, earth and space sciences, and science education. The observatory maintains field facilities in Arizona and Hawaii for ground-based astronomy.
  • Smithsonian Environmental Research Center — Staff and visiting researchers at this Edgewater, Md., facility near the Chesapeake Bay study land-water relationships and plan programs to increase awareness of ecological systems and to determine how they are affected by humans.
  • Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute — Scientists from the Smithsonian and all over the world study the evolution and behavior of tropical organisms at various facilities of this institute in the Republic of Panama.
  • Smithsonian Institution Libraries — The most comprehensive museum library system in the world, it supports the vital research of the Institution as well as the work of scientists and scholars around the world.
  • Smithsonian Institution Archives — The archives hold an estimated 50,000 cubic feet of paper documents, 7 million photographs and thousands of films and audio recordings.

James Smithson (1765-1829), a British scientist, drew up his will in 1826 naming his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, as beneficiary. Smithson stipulated that, should the nephew die without heirs (as he did in 1835), the estate would go to the United States to found “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

On July 1, 1836, Congress accepted the legacy bequeathed to the nation by James Smithson and pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust. In 1838, following approval of the bequest by the British courts, the United States received Smithson’s estate—bags of gold sovereigns, then the equivalent of $515,169. Eight years later, on Aug. 10, 1846, an Act of Congress signed by President James K. Polk established the Smithsonian Institution in its present form and provided for the administration of the trust, independent of the government itself, by a board of regents and secretary of the Smithsonian.

The First Building
The Smithsonian Institution Building, commonly known as the Castle, was designed by architect James Renwick and constructed between 1847 and 1855. The Castle houses the Smithsonian Information Center and administrative offices, as well as the James Smithson crypt.

Organization of the Smithsonian
The chief executive officer of the Smithsonian is the secretary. There have been 12 secretaries since 1846. The Institution is governed by a board of regents which, by law, is composed of the vice president of the United States, the chief justice of the United States, three members of the Senate, three members of the House of Representatives and nine citizen members. The chief justice of the United States has traditionally served as chancellor of the Smithsonian.

Each museum has its own director and staff. The central administration of the Institution is headquartered in the Castle.

The Smithsonian has more than 6,000 people on its permanent staff. More than 5,500 men and women support the work of the Institution as volunteers.

Smithsonian Collections
The total number of objects, works of art and specimens at the Smithsonian is estimated at nearly 137 million, including more than 126 million specimens and artifacts at the National Museum of Natural History. Many artifacts are donated to the Smithsonian by individuals, private collectors and federal agencies; others come to the collections through field expeditions, bequests, exchanges with other museums and organizations, and purchases.

Artifacts not on display are stored in collection study areas in the museums and are available to researchers by appointment. Air- and spacecraft are conserved and stored in the Paul E. Garber Facility in Suitland, Md., about six miles from the National Mall. Also in Suitland is the Museum Support Center, which houses research collections and is headquarters for the Museum Conservation Institute.

Membership Programs
The Smithsonian Associates—45,000 members around the United States—enjoy many benefits. The Associates program offers classes, films, lectures, studio arts courses, performances and a variety of educational activities for adults and children in the Washington metropolitan area. The Institution also has a Contributing Membership Program and a Corporate Membership Program.

The National Air and Space Museum, Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Zoo have active membership programs, as do several other Smithsonian organizations.

National Outreach

  • Smithsonian Affiliations—Through this ambitious program of long-term loans of collections of artifacts and the expertise of its staff, the Smithsonian shares its vast collection and programmatic resources with museums and educational institutions around the country. There are more than 161 affiliates in 39 states, Panama and Puerto Rico. For more information, visit
  • Traveling exhibitions—The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) organizes exhibitions on art, history and science and circulates them around the country. In 2008, SITES traveled 58 exhibitions to 510 venues.
  • Internet—The Smithsonian home page is multilingual and offers a wide range of information including photographs and descriptions of all museums, and several virtual exhibits.

Resources and articles

Related Sourcewatch



Smithsonian Information
PO Box 37012
SI Building, Room 153, MRC 010
Washington, D.C. 20013-7012
Phone: (202) 633-1000