The Smithsonian

Smithsonian Castle

(Photo credit: The Smithsonian Castle, courtesy The Shifted Librarian, Flickr Creative Commons)

The trouble with the Smithsonian Institution is that it simply has way too much stuff on display. Every time I visit Washington, DC I head over to one or more of its museums and galleries to take in as much as I can. And every time the Smithsonian gleefully kicks me in the butt! And yet I always go back for more. I think if I ever retire I’ll need to move to DC just so I can take time to explore every inch of its exhibit space. And then I’ll do it all again. And the best part? It’s all free!

I’ve been thinking about the Smithsonian for the past couple of days. Partly I think it’s because Springfield Armory’s Main Armory Building (see yesterday’s blog post) reminds me of the Smithsonian Castle (see image above). But there’s another reason. There’s a lot of hullabaloo surrounding the Smithsonian Institution this week, and fortunately it’s for a good reason. It’s all because the folks there have announced the release of its official list of “101 Objects that Made America.” I’m sure I’ll write more about that in due course. But the announcement got me thinking a bit more about the Smithsonian. It is a fantastic resource for the United States and the country’s ability to retain a commemorative record of its history.

The Smithsonian’s origins go back to a bastard Brit by the name of James Smithson. He was in fact an illegitimate son of a duke, born in secrecy in Paris, but he made something of his life and became a fairly decent scientist during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. (He was made a fellow of the famous Royal Society and hob-nobbed with other scientific notables such as Joseph Priestley, Henry Cavendish, and Sir Joseph Banks, so he must have gained some sort of prominence.) Smithson remained childless and on his death left his estate to the United States to create the “Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” No-one’s quite sure why he did this. This large bequest took the form of 11 boxes of gold sovereigns delivered to America. That was in 1829. But, as this is the federal government we’re talking about, it took a few years for the ball to get rolling. Congress waited till 1836 before accepting the bequest and pledging the full faith and credit of the United States to the enterprise. There were more years of haggling and an Act of Congress before the Smithsonian was fully established. But finally, in 1846 President James K. Polk signed the legislation creating the institution as a charitable trust to be run in the name of the American people. Phew! That only took 17 years.

It was worth it. The Smithsonian expanded to become one of the world’s leading groups of museums and research centers. Most of these are centered in Washington, DC, though additional facilities are located in other parts of the country. The institution has become known as “the nation’s attic” because of its massive collection of holdings, some 137 million items in all. So the 101 items picked for the new list—including Smithson’s original will making the bequest—are only the tiniest tippy tip of a pretty massive iceberg. And again, it’s all on display for free. All the millions of people who visit the museums (currently 30 million a year) don’t have to pay for entry. Federal funding plus the institution’s endowment, private contributions, merchandise sales plus god knows what else all help to cover the costs of operation. I still remember visiting Washington, DC for the first time and being amazed to find that all this cost absolutely nothing. I found it hard to believe this could happen in America. I was pleasantly surprised.

One Smithsonian building I’ve not yet stepped into is the institution’s first home in the capital. Fortunately it’s still there today. Known as The Castle, it’s a red sandstone building sitting on the National Mall. It dates back to 1846. It’s still used by the Smithsonian as an administrative center. It has since been joined by 19 more museums, plus research centers and the National Zoo.

One more thing. I learned something new about the Smithsonian today: It has a really cool flag. I don’t mean the Stars and Stripes. I mean that the institution has its own actual flag. I can’t find much on the Web about it, but it looks like it’s a fairly recent innovation. The flag is a yellow and blue quartered design, with the Smithsonian’s sunburst logo (itself very cool-looking) placed at the center. I like flag designs that are quartered; it gives them a sort of heraldic look. Maryland’s flag, based on the coat of arms of the Baron of Baltimore, also has this feature. I think the Smithsonian flag needs to be aired more often.

Sources:

About Us. Smithsonian Institution. Available at http://www.si.edu/about/

Facts about the Smithsonian Institution. Available at http://newsdesk.si.edu/factsheets/facts-about-smithsonian-institution

Our History. Smithsonian Institution. Available at http://www.si.edu/About/History

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