The Smithsonian Institution, headquartered in Washington, D.C., is the world’s largest museum complex and research organization. Composed of 19 museums and 9 research centers, its collection encompasses 137 million items.
A somewhat obscure British scientist by the name of James Smithson planted the seed for the institution when he died in 1829 and left behind a will containing a curious provision. It stipulated that if Smithson’s nephew were to die without heirs, the estate would go “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 among men.” American officials were surprised by the provision since Smithson had never set foot in the United States, and apparently he had never corresponded with anyone here. Nevertheless, after the nephew died without heirs in 1835, the bequest fell into Congress’s lap. Then came several years of heated debate over exactly what to do with the legacy, which amounted to more than $500,000. On August 10, 1846, President James Polk signed into law an act creating the Smithsonian Institution.
The institution’s mission is exactly what James Smithson specified: “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” That largely means connecting Americans to their history and heritage. The Smithsonian’s holdings range from the original Star-Spangled Banner to the ruby slippers worn by Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz to the space capsule that carried the Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon and back. The astounding assortment has earned the Smithsonian the nickname “the nation’s attic.” Since most Smithsonian museums charge no entrance fee, one of the world’s greatest collections of artwork, artifacts, and scientific specimens is free for all to see.