Smithsonian Institute

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Smithsonian Institute
The Smithsonian Institute is tasked with the broad and ambitious charge of spreading knowledge to the people of the United States and the world. With topics spanning from anthropology to zoology, the Smithsonian is the largest and most complete system of museums and knowledge in the world which anyone can access.

by Hannah Bowen



The Smithsonian Institute began with money given to the United States by James Smithson, a British scientist and scholar who had never set foot on its shores. Its purpose is “The increase and diffusion of knowledge (LePera, 3).” The Smithsonian’s goal is to use its ample resources and every increasing knowledge base to preserve the heritage of the peoples of the world by educating the public. With 19 museums and a zoo, the Smithsonian interprets and educates on a wide variety of topics and issues. From scientific studies of the stars to studying eternal life in ancient Egypt or the great Harlem Renaissance musician Duke Ellington, there is something to be learned from almost every prominent field of study, and admission is free to all who chose to visit.

The newest and most comprehensive project taken on by the Institute is the creation of an online database for every single collection within the Smithsonian. The goal of this project, in keeping with their mission, is for students all around the world to be able to access, watch, and discover without ever visiting the museums themselves. This means that students in Colorado, Paris, or Tokyo can have access to the world’s largest collection of knowledge, without making the expensive and impractical trip. By digitizing the artifacts, documents, stories, and scientific discoveries of collaborators all around the world, the Smithsonian has taken “the spread and diffusion of knowledge” into the 21st century (LePera, 2).


Historic Roots

James Smithson (1765-1829) was the illegitimate son of the Duke of Northumberland and an aristocratic French women whose wealth afforded him an Oxford education. During his professional life, he belonged to several organizations that used science to benefit society (From Smithson, 3). He believed in and encouraged learning and that "Every man is a valuable member of society who by his observations, researches, and experiments procures knowledge for men” (From Smithson 4). Everyone had something to contribute if giving the time and opportunity. Upon his death in 1829 he left his fortune to his nephew with the condition that if upon his death he had no heirs that the money was to be given to "the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge…” (From Smithson 5). Smithson had never set foot on American soil and the reason behind his gift remains unknown.

Despite the money being received by the United States upon the death of Smithson’s nephew in 1835, the wealth was not made into US currency until 1838 and the Institute was not founded until 1846 (General History 1). There were two main reasons for the delay. Creating such an institute was beyond the power of congress and technically unconstitutional. Government authorities at the time were unsure of how to actualize the “diffusion of knowledge.” One of the only reasons the Smithsonian exists as it does today is because of the creation of Washington DC. The same laws and statutes that prevent the citizens of DC from having representation and autonomy are those that allowed Congress to have the power to create an institute that would have otherwise been illegal (Currie 65). Congress instituted a Board of Regents that would govern the institute (General History 1). After the congressional ambiguity was resolved, the question that remained was how the money was to be spent. Ideas ranging from a university, to a library, to a scientific research center, to a museum were presented and Congress finally decided on collection of works and galleries.

Each regent of the Smithsonian Institute added to the museums and collections of Washington DC. The first regent was Joseph Henry (1846-1878), a physicist whose focus was in electromagnetic induction. His contribution to the institute was focused on science and included starting a publication and a network of weather observers that eventually became the National Weather Service (General History 1). Some of the first collections of the Smithsonian were destroyed when a portion of the first museum, called the Castle, caught fire and Henry was reluctant to keep the artifacts together after the incident. The Arts and Industries Museum came under Spencer Baird (1878-1887) in 1876 and the third regent, Samuel Langley (1887-1906), started the Astrophysical Observatory as well as the National Zoo (General History 1). The fourth regent, a man named Charles Walcott (1907-1927) started the National Museum of Natural history in 1911 and the Smithsonian American Art museum (General History 1). S Dillon Ripley (1964-1984), the eighth Regent, supervised a major expansion at the Smithsonian, including “the Anacostia Community Museum (1967); the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, (1968); the Smithsonian American Art Museum (1968); the National Portrait Gallery (1968); the Renwick Gallery (1972); the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (1974); the National Museum of African Art (1979); the Sackler Gallery (1983); and the International Center (1987)”(General History 1).  Finally, the current regent G. Wayne Clough (2008-present) initiated the Strategic Plan, which calls for all of the Smithsonian’s artifacts and papers to be digitized so that everyone around the world would have access to all the resources the Institute has to offer.



The importance of the Smithsonian Institute is that it provides a flourishing and safe environment for current and future generations to have access to knowledge that encourages curiosity in almost every subject matter. Education is vitally important to the ever-shrinking global sphere and being educated on the practices of other countries, as well as one’s own, is imperative in today’s world. For example, one of the Smithsonian’s current Campaigns is “Tell America’s Story,” which “documents the country’s triumphs and struggles and reinforces what it means to be an American” (Campaign Themes 2). Learning stories about Alexander Hamilton, Louis and Clarke’s discovery of the Louisiana Purchase, the Gold Rush, and the tragedy of Manifest Destiny help students as well as adults in understanding American heritage beyond Columbus and Thanksgiving. By encouraging a better understanding of American history to the American people, the Smithsonian is helping to create generations of inclusive and educated citizens.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The Smithsonian operates and function much like a Non-Profit organization, in that it accepts donations from individuals, receives large gifts from corporation companies and foundations, issues grants and runs campaigns. Starting in 1858, Congress provided an annual appropriation to the Smithsonian for the care of the national collections (General History 1). The Smithsonian currently has four campaign themes; Spark Discovery, Tell America’s Story, Inspire Lifelong Learning, and Reach People Everywhere (Campaign Themes 1).  

One of the most recent philanthropic initiatives completed by the Smithsonian Institute is partnering with WorldStrides to create a university travel program. This program will “offer traveling groups of university students special access to research sites, scientific facilities, cultural landmarks and a global network of experts for hands-on learning opportunities in breath-taking destinations around the world” (Smithsonian 1). The program includes museums and site visits that will encourage future study. By combining the abilities of both organizations, WorldStrides and the Smithsonian have succeeded in broadening the scope of knowledge for university students around the globe.


  • "Campaign Themes." Smithsonian Campaign. Smithsonian Institute, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2016.
  • Currie, David P. "The Smithsonian." The University of Chicago Law Review70.1 (2003): 65-71. JSTOR. Web. 29 Oct. 2016.
  • "From Smithson to Smithsonian: The Birth of an Institution." Smithsonian Libraries. Smithsonian Institute, Jan. 1998. Web. 29 Oct. 2016
  • "General History." Smithsonian Institution Archives. Smithsonian Institute, Mar. 2008. Web. 29 Oct. 2016.
  • LePera, Patricia, ed. Strategic Plan. Washington, DC: Office of the Federal Coordinator for Meteorological Services and Supporting Research, 2010. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Smithsonian Institute, 2010. Web. 29 Oct. 2016
  • "Smithsonian and WorldStrides Introduce Smithsonian University Travel Programs." Entertainment Close-up, 20 Aug. 2015. Biography in Context
This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.