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The Smithsonian Institution ( ) is an educational and research institute and associated museum complex, administered and funded by the government of the United States and by funds from its endowment, contributions, and profits from its shops and its magazines. Most of its facilities are located in Washington, D.C.marker, but its 19 museums, zoo, and nine research centers include sites in New York Citymarker, Virginiamarker, Panamamarker, and elsewhere (see below). It has over 136 million items in its collections, publishes two magazines named Smithsonian (monthly) and Air & Space (bimonthly), and employs the Smithsonian Police to protect visitors, staff, and the property of the museums. The Institution's current logo is a stylized sun.


The Smithsonian Institution was founded for the "increase and diffusion" of knowledge from a bequest to the United Statesmarker by the Britishmarker scientist James Smithson (1765–1829), who had never visited the United States himself. In Smithson's will, he stated that should his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, die without heirs, the Smithson estate would go to the government of the United States for creating an "Establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge among men". After the nephew died without heirs in 1835, President Andrew Jackson informed Congress of the bequest, which amounted to 104,960 gold sovereigns, or US$500,000 ($10,100,997 in 2008 U.S. dollars after inflation). After heated debate as to whether the federal government had the authority to accept the gift, Congress accepted the legacy bequeathed to the nation and pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust July 1, 1836.

Eight years later, Congress passed an act establishing the Smithsonian Institution, a hybrid public/private partnership, and the act was signed into law on August 10, 1846 by James Polk. (See (Ch. 178, Sec. 1, 9 Stat. 102).) The bill was drafted by Indianamarker Democratic Congressman Robert Dale Owen, a Socialist and son of Robert Owen, the father of the cooperative movement.

The crenellated architecture of the Smithsonian Institution Buildingmarker on the National Mallmarker has made it known informally as "The Castle". It was built by architect James Renwick, Jr. and completed in 1855. Many of the Institution's other buildings are historical and architectural landmarks. Detroitmarker philanthropist Charles Lang Freer's donation of his private collection for Freer Gallerymarker, and funds to build the museum, was among the Smithsonian's first major donations from a private individual.

Though the Smithsonian's first secretary, Joseph Henry, wanted the Institution to be a center for scientific research, before long it became the depository for various Washington and U.S. government collections.

The United States Exploring Expedition by the U.S. Navy circumnavigated the globe between 1838 and 1842. The voyage amassed thousands of animal specimens, an herbarium of 50,000 examples, shells and minerals, tropical birds, jars of seawater and ethnographic specimens from the South Pacific. These specimens and artifacts became part of the Smithsonian collections, as did those collected by several military and civilian surveys of the American West, including the Mexican Boundary Survey and Pacific Railroad Surveys, which assembled many Native American artifacts and natural history specimens.

The Institution became a magnet for natural scientists from 1857 to 1866, who formed a group called the Megatherium Club.

The asteroid 3773 Smithsonian, discovered in 1984, is named in honor of the Institution.

A 2009 motion picture, (Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian), was given rights to use the Smithsonian Institution's name for the first time in its history.


The Smithsonian Castle doorway
The Smithsonian Institution is established as a trust instrumentality by act of Congress, and it is functionally and legally a body of the federal government. More than two-thirds of the Smithsonian's workforce of some 6,300 persons are employees of the federal government. The Smithsonian is represented by attorneys from the United States Department of Justicemarker in litigation, and money judgments against the Smithsonian are also paid out of the federal treasury.

The legislation that created the Smithsonian Institution (approved by Congress Aug. 10, 1846) called for the creation of a Board of Regents to govern and administer the organization. This 17-member board meets at least four times a year and includes as ex officio members the Chief Justice of the United States and the Vice President of the United States. The nominal head of the Institution is the Chancellor, an office which has traditionally been held by the Chief Justice. In September 2007, the Board created the position of Chair of the Board of the Board of Regents, a position currently occupied by Patricia Q. Stonesifer of Washington State.

Other members of the Board of Regents are three members of the U.S. House of Representatives appointed by the Speaker of the House; three members of the Senate, appointed by the President pro tempore of the Senate; and nine citizen members, nominated by the Board and approved by the Congress in a joint resolution signed by the President of the United States. Regents who are representatives and senators serve for the duration of their elected term. Citizen Regents serve a maximum of two six-year terms. Regents are compensated on a part-time basis. The chief executive officer of the Smithsonian is the Secretary, who is appointed by the Board of Regents. There have been 12 Secretaries since the Smithsonian was established. The Secretary also serves as secretary to the Board of Regents but is not a voting member of that body. The Secretary of the Smithsonian has the privilege of the floor at the United States Senate.

Secretaries of the Smithsonian

  1. Joseph Henry, 1846–1878
  2. Spencer Fullerton Baird, 1878–1887
  3. Samuel Pierpont Langley, 1887–1906
  4. Charles Doolittle Walcott, 1907–1927
  5. Charles Greeley Abbot, 1928–1944
  6. Alexander Souris, 1944–1952
  7. Leonard Carmichael, 1953–1964
  8. Samuel Perera, 1964–1984
  9. Robert McCormick Adams, 1984–1994
  10. Ira Michael Heyman, 1994–1999
  11. Lawrence M. Small, 2000–2007
  12. Cristián Samper (Acting Secretary), 2007–2008
  13. G. Wayne Clough, 2008-

The Colombian biologist Cristián Samper was the first Latin American to hold the position. Born in Costa Ricamarker, he was raised in Colombiamarker, the country of his father, Armando Samper, from one year of age. He received his Bachelor's degree in Biology from the Universidad de los Andesmarker in Bogotámarker and his Ph.D. from Harvard Universitymarker. He is one of the founders of the Von Humboldt Institute in Colombia, and since 2003 had been the director of the National Museum of Natural Historymarker in Washington, D.C.marker.

Office of Protection Services (OPS)

The Smithsonian Office Of Protection Services oversees security at the Smithsonian Facilities. The Secretary of the Smithsonian may designate employees to have Special Police Status to enforce regulations within the Smithsonian facilities and grounds as well as areas of the National Capital Parks in D.C.

According to , Smithsonian staff who are designated as Special police "may, within the specified buildings and grounds, enforce, and make arrests for violations of, sections 6302 and 6303 of this title, any regulation prescribed under section 6304 of this title, federal or state law, or any regulation prescribed under federal or state law; and (2) may enforce concurrently with the United States Park Police the laws and regulations applicable to the National Capital Parks, and may make arrests for violations of sections 6302 and 6303 of this title, within the several areas located within the exterior boundaries of the face of the curb lines of the squares within which the specified buildings and grounds are located."

The Office of Protection Services has three Main positions within the division, all of which are U.S. Government Positions:

  • Smithsonian Museum Protection Officers/Guards undergo three weeks of specialized training which includes firearm use, arrest procedures, handcuffing and OC Spray use and are assigned to one of 19 Smithsonian Museum or Research sites in New York City or the District of Columbia
  • Smithsonian Museum Physical Security Specialists and Supervisory Physical Security Specialists assist in overseeing the daily protection operations of the various Museum Sites. Each Specialist is assigned to a central division of OPS and has responsibilities for all Smithsonian sites.
  • Smithsonian Zoological Police Officers are assigned to the National Zoo owned by the Smithsonian in the District Of Columbia. Zoological officers receive specialized Police Officer training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETCmarker)

Smithsonian museums

Washington, D.C.

New York, NY

Chantilly, VA

Leesburg, VA

  • Smithsonian Naturalist Center

In addition, there are 156 museums that are Smithsonian affiliates.

Smithsonian research centers

The following is a list of Smithsonian research centers, with their affiliated museum in parentheses:


Enola Gay Display

See also: Enola Gay: Recent Developments

In 1994, the display of the Enola Gay, the Superfortress which executed the first atomic bombing in World War Two, at the National Air and Space Museummarker became a controversy. The American Legion and Air Force Association were concerned that the display unfairly put forward one side of the debate over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, emphasizing the death and destruction of the bombing without the context of the war. In order to take a neutral stance on this politically sensitive topic, the aircraft was placed on display with merely technical data and without discussion of its historic role.

Censorship of "Seasons of Life and Land"

In 2003, a National Museum of Natural Historymarker exhibit, Subhankar Banerjee's "Seasons of Life and Land," featuring photographs of the Arctic National Wildlife Refugemarker was censored and moved to the basement by Smithsonian officials because they feared that its subject matter was too politically controversial.

In November 2007 the Washington Post reported that internal criticism has been raised regarding the institution's handling of an exhibit on the Arctic. According to documents and e-mails, the exhibit and its associated presentation were edited at high levels to add "scientific uncertainty" regarding the nature and impact of global warming on the Arctic. Acting Secretary of the Smithsonian Cristián Samper was interviewed by the Post and claimed that the exhibit was edited because it contained conclusions that went beyond what could be proven by contemporary climatology.

Strong Copyright Restrictions

The Smithsonian Institution provides access to its image collections for educational, scholarly and non-profit uses. Commercial uses are generally restricted unless permission is obtained. Smithsonian images fall into different copyright categories; some are protected by copyright, many are subject to license agreements or other contractual conditions, and some fall into the public domain, such as those prepared by Smithsonian employees as part of their official duties. The Smithsonian’s terms of use for its digital content, including images, are set forth at on the Smithsonian Web site.

The Smithsonian Institution has been criticized for overly restrictive copyright policies for its image collections, which overwhelmingly consist of public domain content dating from the 19th century. An image without a Smithsonian watermark and at a resolution suitable for publication requires a licensing fee (unless covered under Fair Use provisions), manual approval by the Smithsonian staff, and the restriction of any further use without permission.

This conflicts with the institution's own policy, expressed in a 2005 memo, "The Smithsonian cannot own copyright in works prepared by Smithsonian employees paid from federal funds".

In April 2006, the institution entered into an agreement of "first refusal" rights for its vast silent and public domain film archives with Showtime Networks. Critics contend this agreement effectively gives Showtime control over the film archives, as it requires filmmakers to obtain permission from the network to use extensive amounts of film footage from the Smithsonian archives.

When the formation of Smithsonian Networks was announced, a common misconception was that the agreement would limit access to Smithsonian collections, archives and staff for independent producers because it gave Showtime exclusive rights to this material. In fact, independent producers still have the same access to the Smithsonian and its collections as they had prior to the agreement and the process to film at the Smithsonian remains the same. Since January 2006, more than 500 requests from independent producers have come into the Smithsonian for filming in the museums and collections, archival footage and photos.


Further reading

  • Nina Burleigh, Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America's Greatest Museum, The Smithsonian, HarperCollins, September 2003, hardcover, 288 pages, ISBN 0-06-000241-7

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