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Friday, August 10, 2012

Happy Smithsonian Day

Pages 1 and 3 of the double-sided handwritten
draft of James Smithson's will.
Courtesy of SIA.

As we all know, each day in the year has a special celebration attached to it. Today you can celebrate, National S’mores Day, Lazy Day, and even National Duran Duran Day! But, just in case you are not hungry like a wolf, here at the Smithsonian we would like to celebrate Smithsonian Day!

 One hundred and sixty-six years ago, by a vote of 26 to 16, the United States Senate passed the act organizing the Smithsonian Institution. This event was the culmination of years of debate that began in 1829 with the death of the English scientist James Smithson. Smithson, who never traveled to America, wrote in his will that, in the event his heir died without any children, his residual estate would be left to the United States to create in the city of Washington, "under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."

Facsimile of the Act to Establish
Smithsonian Institution, 1846.
Courtesy of SIA.

Though the law was passed in 1846, the early Institution was very different from the Smithsonian we know today. In fact, the law, which was signed by President James K. Polk, included only limited requirements of the Institution: a Board of Regents, Chancellor, Secretary; a“suitable” building containing rooms for the “reception and arrangement” of objects of natural history, a chemical laboratory, a library, a gallery of art, and lecture rooms; and that one copy of all publications copyrighted under the United States Congress would be deposited at the Institution. The law also specified that all objects of natural history, art, etc., belonging to the United States in Washington, D.C, must be transferred to the Smithsonian. Finally, the act stated that Smithson’s original legacy of $515,169, plus interest accrued at the rate of 6% on loan to the U.S. Treasury, amounting to $242,129, would be maintained as a trust fund. Further, all expenditures and appropriations must come from interest accrued in this fund.

The Smithsonian Institution Building or "Castle's" south entrance,
viewed from Independence Avenue.
Courtesy of SIA.

The passage of the vague act and establishment of the Smithsonian began yet another debate on what this act meant and how to fulfill its provisions. Since the establishment of the Smithsonian, Congress has passed almost two hundred resolutions relating to the Institution. These variety of laws and legislations have helped the Smithsonian continue to grow and evolve into the world’s largest museum and research complex.

Courtney Esposito, Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives

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