Hey Smithsonian - How'd You Get to be "The Smithsonian"?

As part of our ongoing “Hey Smithsonian” series, we are calling on the experts at the establishment itself to answer some questions we have about the iconic institution. It may seem like a basic query, but how did the Smithsonian get its name anyway?

It’s actually an incredibly interesting story!

Smithsonian Castle
Smithsonian Castle

The Smithsonian Institution was established with funds from James Smithson (1765-1829), a British scientist who left his estate to the United States to found “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Okay, no big deal, right? What’s interesting is that James Smithson, the illegitimate child of a wealthy Englishman, was well traveled but never once set foot on American soil. Why, then, would he decide to give the entirety of his $500,000 estate to the United States? (Fun fact: that amount of money was 1/66 of the United States’ entire federal budget at the time!)

Some speculate it was because he was denied his father’s legacy. Others argue Smithson had a fascination with the United States’ experiment with democracy. Some say he was inspired by organizations like the Royal Institution, which was dedicated to using scientific knowledge to improve human conditions. “Smithson never wrote or discussed his decisions with any friends, so we don’t really know the full story,” noted Richard Kurin, Smithsonian Distinguished Scholar and Ambassador-at-Large. “But we’re sure glad he did it!”

Portrait of James Smithson
James Smithson

Congress accepted Smithson’s bequest on July 1, 1836, but it would take another 10 years of debate before the Smithsonian was founded! On August 10, 1846, an Act of Congress signed by President James K. Polk established the Smithsonian Institution.

Since its founding more than 170 years ago, the Smithsonian has become the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex, consisting of 19 museums, the National Zoo, and nine research facilities. Thank you, James Smithson!

In 2018, WorldStrides became the approved domestic educational travel provider of the Smithsonian. This blog is part of a series, “Hey Smithsonian!” where we ask our friends at the venerable institution questions that dig deeper into this special place and all it has to offer!

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