Washington, DC’s 1st Gift to the World – The Smithsonian Institution


Smithsonian Castle

Originally uploaded by m-t-z.

Throughout the past week, we’ve talked about six other gifts that the DC Area has given to the world. If you’ve not yet read them, we’ve archived them here for you. They include DC’s incredible music scene, to the cherry blossoms, to Marion S. Barry himself. DC’s gifts are legion, and by no means is our list canonical. We seek to highlight some of DC’s unique spots and moments, and this last gift is chief amongst our list.

DC’s Smithsonian Institution, established under a gift from British scientist James Smithson in 1846, was chartered to be “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” And so it has been, since that day. Smithson’s gift of over 100,000 gold sovereigns (which was melted into $500,000 of gold) has turned the organization into a monument to human knowledge and will. That gift was the source of significant controversy in the legislature here in DC, with many senators concerned what it would mean to have such a gift given to the nation at large. Some contended to accept it would violate states rights. Others still suggested it would cause other common men and women to do the same, forcing the US to act as executor. Those efforts, though, were overridden by the strong desire for a national university, and so from that was born the Smithsonian Institution under a board of trustees.

The Smithsonian now controls 19 museums outright, and has a partnership with 144 more. 24 million people every year visit the institutions that surround our national mall. The Air & Space Museum and its expansion near Dulles house such aviation achievements as the SR-71 Blackbird, the Space Shuttle Enterprise, the Wright Flyer and one of the Lunar Lander Modules. The Freer, Sackler and Hirshhorn Galleries and Museums, as well as the National Portrait Gallery, contain this nation’s artistic treasures and highlights, as well as visiting exhibits from all over the world. The incredible Museum of Natural History includes such wonders as the Hope Diamond.

The Smithsonian Institution’s indelible mark upon American History in culture is on par with any political event, with any natural event, with any city in this country’s borders. The Smithsonian is almost a rite of passage amongst America’s youth who come to Washington to see it and be educated by it on an annual basis, and no trip to Washington would be complete without seeing it.

Thank you, James Smithson, for your incredible gift.

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