📸 The Smithsonian Institution Building with its distinctive Romanesque architecture. (Source: Smithsonian)
Dotted along the National Mall, in the heart of Washington DC, the Smithsonian’s museums contain exhibits from the heights of art, history, and science. In just an afternoon, one can see Chuck Yeagar’s Bell X-1 plane that broke the sound barrier, then on to Dorothy’s red slippers from The Wizard of Oz, before rounding things off with Claude Monet’s Japanese Footbridge. All these exhibits owe themselves to the Smithsonian’s long history, as the institution grew from its modest charter into the sprawling complex of museums and facilities it is today.
📸 The National Museum under construction, 1879 (Source: Smithsonian)
The history of the Smithsonian begins abruptly with a posthumous endowment from English scientist James Smithson in 1835. Smithson was a renowned chemist and vagabond who traversed across Europe during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. For all his travels, however, he never visited America, nor knew any Americans, making his generous gift of his entire fortune, library, and mineral collection to the young country all the more mysterious. The gift came with one stipulation: it was to be used for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” leaving Congress to interpret this ambitious but vague goal.
Ironically to us, there was some question at first over whether the Smithsonian would be a museum at all. Its first secretary, Joseph Henry, was opposed to focusing on a public space at the expense of facilitating research and publishing studies. Others on the institution's board of regents like mayor William Winston Seaton saw it as an opportunity to enrich the nascent city, which was still swampy and underdeveloped. This faction won the day and Henry turned his eye towards museum work. Although he was conservative on the museum question, Henry can be credited with expanding the Smithsonian’s scope to include history and the arts.
📸 The inside of the National Museum in 1885 (Source: Smithsonian)
Henry hired natural scientist Spencer Fullerton Baird to manage the museum space ever-expanding in the Smithsonian Institution Building, better known as the Castle. After Henry’s death in 1878, Baird became secretary and dramatically expanded the institution's holdings, along with his assistant George Brown Goode and later ethnologist Otis Tufton Mason. They wanted the National Museum, built adjacent to the Castle, to emulate the great museums of Europe. These exhibits, while groundbreaking, still maintained the racism of their time, with the ethnology displays arranged by the savage, the barbaric, and the enlightened.
After his death, Henry’s worst fears became real, as the institution expanded into multiple museums over the following decades, but his concerns over a physical public space seem to have been proven wrong. The National Zoo opened in 1889, the Museum of Natural History following in 1911, with the later part of the 20th century seeing the Air and Space Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum for modern art, and the National Portrait Gallery being built. There is no question that the Smithsonian has increased and diffused knowledge, even if it is not quite how Henry would have wanted it.
📸 The National Museum of African American History and Culture, with its bronze-colored façade. (Source: Civil Rights Trail)
For all its many achievements, the Smithsonian has still struggled to rid itself of its troubling past. After the revelation in 1989 that the institution was holding thousands of Native American remains, Congress passed the National Museum of the American Indian Act. Built with beautiful Kasota limestone blessed by the Montagnais people, the museum opened in 2004, with exhibits dedicated to the native tribes from North and South America. Although a much needed step forward for the Smithsonian, it still maintains many artifacts and remains in need of returning.
More recently, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016, over a century after plans first formed to build a memorial and learning space dedicated to Black Civil War veterans. Among its many exhibits, the museum maintains a bible owned by Nat Turner, a training plane used by the Tuskegee Airmen, and a pair of boxing gloves used by Muhammad Ali. The museum itself had to be constructed around two larger specimens: a railcar and guard tower from the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary, a reminder of the country’s racial history the museum hopes to explicate.
📸 Our Visit to the Smithsonian!
When Otis Tufton Mason was designing the National Museum’s anthropology exhibit, it was described by a colleague as “a miniature world,” allowing a museum visitor to take in each exhibit as though “traveling country by country.” The same might be said of the Smithsonian as a whole. Across its eighteen museums, the institution traverses through the realms of art, history, and the sciences, expanding and diffusing knowledge to the millions who visit its facilities every year.
Here at Mini Museum, we are lucky enough to be right around the corner from the Smithsonian in the nation's backyard. That makes this topic extra special for us. In fact, we had the opportunity to take a guided tour of the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum! The SR-71 they have on display at that location is even a part of the Mini Museum collection—our material comes from the same exact jet. They were even kind enough to let us take a photo of our material with the original bird.
Blue Spruce D. Spirit of a Native Place: Building the National Museum of the American Indian. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, in association with National Geographic; 2004.
Kendrick KM. Official Guide to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. Smithsonian Books; 2017.
Walker WS. A Living Exhibition: the Smithsonian and the Transformation of the Universal Museum. University of Massachusetts Press; 2013.