The Smithsonian Institution Turns 168

by nathanhurst

The venerable Smithsonian Institution, the world's largest complex of museums and historic repositories, is now 168 years old. President James K. Polk signed the law establishing the Smithsonian on August 10, 1846.

That was seven years after the passing of British scientist James Smithson, who never actually set foot on American soil. When the Smithson estate's money arrived in Washington to fulfill the scientist's wish of creating an "establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men" in the U.S., it was in 105 bags and totalled around $500,000 (about $12.8 million today).

In 1999, American historian Pamela Henson discussed the roles Presidents Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams had in setting the stage for the Smithsonian's genesis and its later growth.

President Adams played a particularly significant role in the institution's early years, which historian Nina Burleigh explored in depth in her book The Stranger and the Statesman, which she discussed on C-SPAN in late 2003.

Earlier this year, a number of officials from Smithsonian museums participated in a panel discussion on the future of history museums at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Historical Association.