Today in History – August 10, 1846 - by a vote of 26 to 13, the U.S. Senate passed the act organizing the Smithsonian Institution. Among its provisions: a Board of Regents, a Secretary, and a “suitable” building with rooms for the arrangement of objects of natural history, a chemical laboratory, a library, a gallery of art, and lecture rooms; and the transfer to the Institution of “all objects of art and of foreign and curious research, and all objects of natural history, plants, and geological and mineralogical specimens belonging to the United States.”
The act stipulated that James Smithson’s original legacy ($515,169), which he left “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….” be maintained as a trust fund whose interest was to cover the Smithsonian’s expenses. This fund continues to support the Institution along with other private gifts, grants, contracts and our federal appropriation.
As a young man, Smithson studied at Cambridge and the University of Edinburgh at a time when scientists were developing the scientific method and new discoveries were being published in the physical and natural sciences. He was taken by chemistry, which was emerging as a new field, and he took the opportunity to contribute to it using the new tools of research and science. In time, Smithson became a prominent chemist and a member of the Royal Academy. He was also an admirer of the scientific interests of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and the sense of possibility that was developing in the United States. This is likely one of the reasons for his bequest.
Upon the Smithsonian’s founding, the first Secretary selected was a well known scientist, Joseph Henry. Like Smithson, he ardently believed in the power of scholarship, research and discovery. In his 1854 article “On the Smithsonian Institution,” he wrote that “James Smithson was well aware that knowledge should not be viewed as existing in isolated parts, but as a whole, each portion of which throws light on all the other…the tendency of all is to improve the human mind, and give it new sources of power and enjoyment.” This philosophy has served to guide the growth and development of the Smithsonian as its reach spread across the sciences, history, culture and the arts.
Over time, the Smithsonian expanded to include nineteen museums and the National Zoo as well as nine research centers with activities in 88 countries. Although its activities are still driven by research and discovery, the public perception of the Smithsonian today is largely based on its museums and their exhibitions. Because of its museums, people have an enduring admiration for the Smithsonian, but it is far more than what meets the eye.
Early in its history, the Smithsonian was the principal scientific institution for the federal government. Over time, dozens of government agencies with research missions emerged, along with more than 200 research universities, and the Smithsonian museums increasingly came to represent our public face, with our research hidden behind our walls or moved outside of Washington altogether. Through my recent visits to our various science centers and field activities — in Maryland, Massachusetts, Virginia, Florida, Wyoming, Panama, Kenya, and elsewhere—it is clear that science is thriving at the Smithsonian.
This past year, I have also spent time behind the scenes in our museums, conservation centers and archives. It is clear that research and scholarship is also the lifeblood of the Smithsonian’s work in the arts, history and culture. These elements form the common thread that weaves together all our parts into a single great Institution.
One of our principal challenges for the future is to maintain our research capacity, since without it we will suffer a loss of relevance. Our other challenge is to inform the public about our research and the myriad resources we have available for educators. We believe we can do this both by conscious, direct communication efforts, but also through engagement of the public in ways in which they can communicate with us.
We are beginning to use new social networking technologies, digitizing our vast collections to allow public access, and offering opportunities to interact with our remarkable scholars and scientists. Our resources increasingly go directly to the public using Web outlets such as Flickr and You Tube. Our homepage now includes a new “Smithsonian Science” Website featuring behind-the-scenes research and videos. At the same time, our new Smithsonian Channel is reaching millions of households through participating cable and satellite companies. Also reaching a global audience is the Encyclopedia of Life Website, based at our Museum of Natural History, that represents an unprecedented global effort to document all 1.8 million named species of animals, plants, and other forms of life on Earth.
Through online education conferences we increasingly share our resources worldwide. Our next online conference–on global climate change–will take place Sept. 29-Oct. 1. Participants will directly interact with Smithsonian ecologists, tropical biologists and paleontologists, and take virtual fieldtrips to learn about this critical global issue (www.smithsonianeducation.org). For engineering educators the Smithsonian has remarkable resources that can bring inspirational stories of innovation and creativity to teachers and students. The Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, part of the National Museum of American History, documents and disseminates information about invention and innovation. Founded in 1995, the Center offers a diverse array of educational outreach programs, resources, and exhibitions including online versions. Key milestones of engineering achievement can be found on the Websites of both our National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of American History.
The Smithsonian is a remarkable storehouse of resources and information where research and discovery make a difference every day. Helping the public understand what we do will help optimize the value of the Smithsonian to future generations. We are working to do this and to create a new era for an institution that can continue to be a place of wonder for visitors, but also can be much more. The work ahead is imposing, but the possibilities are exciting.
Check out the Engineering Pathway’s educational resources on the Smithsonian. For other engineering curricular resources, check out our Engineering Education communities in all ABET-accredited disciplines.