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The Nation's Attic
by
Bob Brooke

 

Where do all of the United States’ important historical artifacts—plus thousands of art works and everyday items—end up? At the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., sometimes referred to as “the nation’s attic.” And though it began as the “United States National Museum,” its shear size has forced it to expand to 19 museums and art galleries, plus the National Zoo, all open free to the public and open every day except Christmas. Additionally, over 200 institutions and museums in 45 states, Puerto Rico, and Panama are Smithsonian Affiliates.



If you have lots and lots of time—weeks in fact—the Smithsonian museums offer a comprehensive look into America’s past, from President Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat to the original Enterprise from the original Star Trek TV series. Essentially, it’s assembled collections offer a window into American culture since the founding of the United States in 1789. Then how come it took a British citizen to donate the funds for its founding?

The Founding of the Smithsonian
British scientist James Smithson established the Smithsonian Institution with funds he left in trust to the United States so that it could found “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

The ironic thing was that Smithson, the illegitimate child of a wealthy Englishman, had traveled much during his life, but had never traveled to America. So why did he leave his half-million dollar estate to a country he didn’t know?

Some historians believe that the United States’ experiment with democracy inspired him. Most likely, the Royal Institution, dedicated to scientific knowledge and research, also inspired him. Either way, his generous gift has had a profound effect on the arts, humanities, and sciences of the United States. Though Smithson died in 1829, it wasn’t until 1835 that President Andrew Jackson announced the bequest to Congress.

On July 1, 1836, Congress accepted the legacy bequeathed to the nation and pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust. President Andrew Jackson dispatched diplomat Richard Rush to England to collect the bequest. Rush returned in August 1838 with 105 sacks containing 104,960 gold sovereigns—equivalent to $11,245,000 today. In September, Jackson ordered Smithson's legacy delivered to the Philadelphia Mint to be recoined in U.S. currency.

After eight years of heated debate, an Act of Congress signed by President James K. Polk on August 10, 1846, established the Smithsonian Institution as a trust to be administered by a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian.

Though the Smithsonian's first Secretary, Joseph Henry, wanted the Institution to be a center for scientific research, it also 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 plant specimens, and diverse shells and minerals, tropical birds, jars of seawater, and ethnographic artifacts from the South Pacific Ocean. 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.

Smithsonian Museums
The Smithsonian Institution Building—lovingly referred to as "the Castle" because of the castle-like appearance of its facade—began construction in 1849. Architect James Renwick Jr. designed it while general contractor Gilbert Cameron completed its interior. The building opened in 1855. “The Castle” housed a library, chemical laboratory, lecture halls, offices, and museum and art galleries. During this time the Smithsonian was a learning institution concerned mainly with enhancing science. Under the second secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird, the Smithsonian became a full-fledged museum, mostly through the acquisition of 60 boxcars worth of displays from the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

The Institution’s first expansion came with construction of the Arts and Industries Building in 1881. Congress had promised to build a new structure for the museum if the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition generated enough income. It did, and it hired architects Adolf Cluss and Paul Schulze to design the new facility, based on original plans developed by Major General Montgomery C. Meigs of the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The Arts and Industries Building opened in 1881.

After that, the Smithsonian grew slowly until 1964. Under the leadership of Sidney Dillon Ripley, it expanded to eight museums, the most rapid growth in its history. For the next 20 years, the Smithsonian added buildings along the National Mall to house specific collections. Today, it boasts 20 museums, housing about 137 million objects, including historical and cultural artifacts, works of art, and natural specimens.

The National Zoological Park opened in 1889 to accommodate the Smithsonian's Department of Living Animals. The National Museum of Natural History opened in June 1911 to similarly accommodate the Smithsonian's United States National Museum, which had previously been housed in the Castle and then the Arts and Industries Building. The architectural firm of Hornblower & Marshall designed the building.

When Detroit philanthropist Charles Lang Freer donated his private collection to the Smithsonian and funds to build the museum named after him to hold it which opened in 1923, it was among the Smithsonian's first major donations from a private individual.

More than 40 years would pass before the next museum, the Museum of History and Technology, renamed the National Museum of American History in 1980, opened in 1964. The world-renowned architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White designed it.

The Anacostia Community Museum, an "experimental store-front" museum created at the initiative of Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, opened in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C., in 1967. It contains exhibits of African American Art.

The Smithsonian has a very large art collection. Also in 1967, the Smithsonian signed an agreement to take over the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration in New York City, now the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum opened in the Old Patent Office Building, built in 1867, on October 7, 1968. The reuse of an older building continued with the opening of the Renwick Gallery in 1972 in the 1874, Renwick-designed art gallery built by local philanthropist William Wilson Corcoran to house the Corcoran Gallery of Art.. The first new museum building to open since the National Museum of Natural History was the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which opened in 1974.

The National Air and Space Museum, with the largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft in the world, opened in June 1976. Eleven years later, the National Museum of African Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery opened in a new, joint, underground museum between the Freer Gallery and the Smithsonian Castle. Reuse of another old building came in 1993 with the opening of the National Postal Museum in the 1904 former City Post Office building off the Mall.

In 2004, the Smithsonian opened the National Museum of the American Indian in a new building near the United States Capitol. Twelve years later, it opened its latest museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in a new building near the Washington Monument.

Smithsonian Collections
Smithsonian collections include 156 million artworks, artifacts, and specimens. The National Museum of Natural History houses 145 million of these specimens and artifacts.



Its historical collections are one of its most popular features. In 1912, the First Lady Helen Herron Taft had donated her gown to the museum for the First Ladies' Gown display. The museum also displays such diverse historical treasures as the Star-Spangled Banner, the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in “The Wizard Of Oz,” and the original Teddy Bear named after President Theodore Roosevelt.


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