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.
The Institution at Washington, D. C, was established by statute in 1846, under the terms of the will of James Smithson, who bequeathed his fortune in 1S26 to the United States for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." From the income of the fund a building, known as the Smithsonian Building, was erected on land given by the United States. The Institution is legally an establishment having as its members the President of the United States, the Vice-President, the Chief Justice, and the President's Cabinet. It is governed by a Board of Regents consisting of the Vice-President, the Chief Justice, three members of the United States Senate, three members of the House of Representatives, and six citizens of the United States appointed by joint resolution of Congress. It is under the immediate direction of the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who is the executive officer of the Board and the director of the Institution's activities.
For the increase of knowledge, the Institution aids investigators by making grants for research and exploration, supplying books, apparatus, laboratory accommodations, etc. It occasionally provides for lectures, which are published. It has initiated numerous scientific projects of national importance, some of which have been turned over to the Government and resulted in the creation of independent Government bureaus. It advises the Government in many matters of scientific importance, especially in those that have an international aspect. It co-operates with scientific bodies of national importance, like the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Historical Association, etc. It issues three regular series of publications: Annual Reports, containing papers of general interest intended to keep the ordinary reader abreast of the progress of science; Contributions to Knowledge, the distinct feature of which is that each memoir constitutes an original contribution to knowledge; Miscellaneous Collections, which contain bibliographies, reports of expeditions, and standard tables. All these publications are distributed gratuitously to important libraries throughout the world.
The Institution Library
The Institution maintains a library, in co-operation with the Library of Congress, which numbers 250,000 volumes, and consists mainly of the transactions of learned societies and scientific periodicals. While the body of the library is deposited in the Library of Congress and accessible to all its readers, a working library is maintained at the Institution. Lists, bibliographies, rules for cataloging and library work have been published. The Institution supports a table at the Naples Zoological Station. All these and numerous other activities may be carried, oil solely from the income Of the Smithsonian fund. The Regents are empowered to accept gifts without action of Congress, in furtherance of the purposes of 'the Institution, and to administer trusts in accord therewith.
The parent Institution has the administrative charge of several branches which grew out of its early activities and which are supported by Congressional appropriations. These are the National Museum, including the National Gallery of Art; the International Exchange Service, the Bureau of American Ethnology, the National Zoological Park, the Astrophysical Observatory, and fhe United States Regional Bureau for the International Catalog of Scientific Literature.
The United States National Museum
The National Museum is the depository of the national collections. It is especially rich in the natural history, geology, paleontology, archaeology and ethnology of America, and has unique collections of American history, as well as many series relating to fine arts and the industrial arts. It is both an educational and a research museum, and issues numerous technical and popular scientific publications. The National Gallery of Art consists largely of the collections of etchings and engravings of George P. Marsh, the collections of Charles L. Freer, containing numerous paintings and etchings by Whistler, and examples of Chinese and Japanese art; the Harriet Lane Johnston collection, including a number of the greatest English portrait painters, and the collection of William T. Evans, of more than one hundred and twenty-five paintings, representing some of the best work of American artists.
The International Exchange Service
The International Exchange Service, carried on In accordance with the terms of a treaty entered into between the United States and various foreign nations, is for the free interchange of Governmental and scientific publications between the Government of the United States and foreign governments and institutions, and investigators in the United States and. foreign lands. It has correspondents in all parts of the world, and since its establishment more than 4.000.000 packages have been handled by it.
The Bureau of American Ethnology, the bureau for the Study of the North American Indian; The Astrophysical Observatory, for the investigation of solar phenomena; The National Zoological Park at Washington, containing about 1,400 animals, and the Regional Bureau of the International Catalog of Scientific Literature, for the preparation of a classified index to the current scientific literature of the United States are also branches of the work of the Institution,
- 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.'"