The Smithsonian Institution was founded in the mid-19th century as an institute for education in the United States, initially funded by a generous and mysterious bequest by James Smithson, a British scientist who had never visited the United States or even communicated with anyone there. It currently consists of more than a dozen museums in Washington DC, including the Air and Space Museum and the Museum of Natural History. It describes itself as "the world's largest museum complex and research organization composed of 16 museums and the National Zoo in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, and 2 museums in New York City."
All of its museums are funded by taxpayer dollars, and entrance is provided free on that basis.
The Smithsonian Institution claims a copyright on its materials, thereby limiting their reuse. This seems contrary to the federal law prohibiting a copyright in works of the federal government, but the Smithsonian Institution claims to have an existence separate from the government and this claim of copyright has not been tested in court.
- James Smithson named his nephew as beneficiary in his last will and testament. "Smithson stipulated that, should the nephew die without heirs (as he would in 1835), the estate should 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.'"