Founded by wealthy British chemist and mineralogist James Smithson (1765-1829), who—bizarrely, as he never visited the US—conferred his fortune on the United States government, the Smithsonian Institution was created by an act of Congress in 1846. Smithson requested that it be an institution promoting research and the dispersal of academic knowledge.
Architect James Renwick designed the first building, known as the Castle because its combination of late Romanesque and early Gothic styles included signature turrets, on a prime piece of national real estate on the verdant Mall. Completed in 1855, the Castle now serves as the Smithsonian Information Center and administrative hub—and should be the first port of call for any visitor.
The Victorian red-brick Arts & Industries Building, designed as the Smithsonian’s first hall devoted solely to exhibitions, was added in 1881 (it is currently under renovation). Over the years, collections shown here became large enough to warrant their own buildings. After the creation of the National Zoo in 1890, Congress began the steady erection of museums lining the Mall, beginning with the Museum of Natural History in 1910. From 1923 to 1993, 11 new museums entered the Smithsonian portfolio, most of them holding fine art.
Today the Smithsonian owns more than 140 million objects (plus a further 128 million in its libraries and archive collections), covering everything from ancient Chinese pottery to dinosaurs, Italian Renaissance painting to moon landings, so you’re bound to find at least one collection that interests you.
There is one central phone number—202 357 2700—where you can get information on all the Smithsonian’s museums. The website—www.si.edu—is also useful and has links to individual museum websites. Smithsonian Access, a brochure detailing the disabled facilities at the museums, is available at each museum—or call 202 786 2942. If you need to arrange special facilities you should call the museum two weeks in advance.
|Venue name:||Smithsonian Institution Building (The Castle)|
1000 Jefferson Drive, SW
|Cross street:||between 7th and 10th Streets|
|Opening hours:||8.30am-5.30pm daily|