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Tourist Destinations of the United States: The Smithsonian Institution

Updated on January 6, 2015

Tourist Destinations of the United States: The Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian Institution, headquartered in Washington DC is the world’s largest museum and research complex. Covering a vast area of 9.6 million square feet, the Smithsonian is comprised of 19 museums and galleries along with the National Zoological Park. The institution’s affiliates extend to other locations such as Arizona, Maryland, Virginia, New York City, and Panama. However, the scope of this article shall focus only on the institution’s main structures found in Washington. The Smithsonian currently contains more than 136 million items among its wide array of collections. Moreover, an additional 168 museums are in some fashion affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. Admission into the entire Smithsonian complex is free of charge; it pays for itself via funds gained from the US Congress along with its many gift shops and subscription fees from its two magazines.

Smithsonian Castle

A Brief History of the Smithsonian Institution and its Headquarters

While the main building of the Smithsonian Institution’s headquarters, known as “The Castle” was built in 1855, the institution itself dates back to 1846. The institution gets its name from a wealthy English scientist, James Smithson (1765-1829). Smithson stated in his will that his estate should be bequeathed to his nephew. Included was a stipulation whereas if the nephew died without an heir the estate would then have been given to the fledgling United States. Smithson’s nephew passed away in 1835 without a single offspring. After about two years of negotiations between England and the US, the entire Smithson estate, consisting of approximately $500,000 (a hefty sum in the 18th century) was given to the US for the purpose of creating an establishment for harboring scientific research. However, these funds were squandered in risky investments doomed to default. After many heated debates within the US Congress, these lost funds were restored plus interest. Massachusetts Representative (later the president) John Quincy Adams successfully argued to allocate these funds toward its original purpose of fostering knowledge through research. As such, the money went toward creating an institution based on science and learning. Throughout the 19th century the Smithsonian’s collection grew slowly from mostly public donations coupled with a few small private contributions. During this period the institution served as a hotbed for natural scientists and their research. From the 1860s until the turn of the century, the Smithsonian amassed thousands of various animal and plant specimens that were the result of efforts by the United States Exploring Expedition, a former wing of the US Navy. The Smithsonian’s first major private contribution occurred in 1923 when a famous philanthropist from Detroit, Charles Lang Freer donated his massive private art collection. Freer also gave the institution funds that covered the cost of building a museum to house his collection. This structure, opening in 1923 became known as the Freer Gallery. As more donations flowed into the institution more museums were built to house the influx of contributions.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Museums of the Smithsonian Institution

Of the 19 museums that make up the Smithsonian, 11 of them are located on the National Mall which is a strip of land running between the country’s capitol building and the Abraham Lincoln Memorial. Five other museums are spread out elsewhere within Washington with two others in New York City and one in Chantilly, Virginia.

Established in 2003, the African American History and Culture Museum represents the institution’s latest museum. Its purpose is devoted entirely to the documentation of African American life, art, history, and culture. This museum is currently under construction its completion is scheduled for 2015. However, some parts of it are already finished and open to the public.

Originally established as a private museum in 1964, the National Museum of African Art officially became a part of the institution in August of 1979. This museum specializes in African art and culture. Interestingly, this structure is an underground museum with subterranean pathways leading to other two other unrelated museums. The majority of the items found in this collection are sculptures, furniture, musical instruments, and masks all of which are constructed from wood.

The National Air and Space Museum, established in 1976 is home to 23 galleries that display hundreds of aircraft, spacecraft, rockets, missiles, and other artifacts having to do with the history of human flight. Among the collection is the 1903 Wright Flyer used by the Wright brothers to embark on their first ever known flight. Also on display is the Spirit of St. Louis which was the aircraft used by Charles Lindbergh during his historic flight across the Atlantic Ocean, the first trip of its kind. Items that are too large to display at this museum are housed at the National Air and Space Museum. Here one can view the Space Shuttle Enterprise and the famous B-29 aircraft (the Enola Gay) that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan to end the Second World War.

One of the Smithsonian’s earliest museums is the American Art Museum. This museum plays host to a wide variety of American art covering all regions and artistic movements found within the nation. The building housing this museum is of a Romanesque style, it was originally the old Patent Office Building. The museum opened in 1968 after undergoing extensive renovations. The National American History Museum is where guests can view collections having to do with American political, cultural, scientific, social, and military history. Among the many items on display in this museum is the original drafting of the Star-Spangled Banner, the country’s national anthem. Another museum dedicated to history is the National Museum of the American Indian. This museum opened in 2004, it contains a massive collection of artifacts related to a number of Native American tribes. Included among these artifacts are native furniture, housing, weapons, and pottery among many other items.

Other museums include the aforementioned Freer Gallery of Art, the institution’s first museum. Other museums include the Natural History Museum, the Arts and Industries Building, the Postal Museum, several art galleries, and the main building of the institution known as The Castle. The Castle represents the first building the Smithsonian Institution ever constructed. Completed in 1855, this structure’s architectural style is indicative of the late Romanesque style. Today, the building serves as the institution’s information center as well as the home of administrative offices. Also within this building resides a crypt containing Smithson’s tomb.

The National Zoological Park

The National Zoo is world renowned for being one the world’s best. It is home to approximately 2,000 animals that represent close to 400 species. Among some of the more rare creatures are giant pandas, Asian elephants, western lowland gorillas, Sumatran tigers, cheetahs, and American bald eagles. Roughly one-fourth of all species found in the zoo are listed on the endangered list. The zoo provides animal care of the highest quality while also offering extensive educational programs dealing with the science of zoology. Entrance to the zoo is without charge.

Smithsonian American Art Museum - Renwick Gallery - Student Orientation Video


Visiting the entire Smithsonian Institution complex in Washington DC could take years to fully complete. It is a massive collection of various artifacts ranging from a myriad of different peoples and cultures. Therefore, tourists should consider visiting the Smithsonian when they have plenty of time to view as much of the complex as possible. Guests will be happy to discover that everything affiliated with the institution allows for free admission.

All the museums of the Smithsonian represent the ideal tourist destination for anyone having even the slightest interest of the history and culture of the American people. Due to its fascinating collections of educational artifacts, the Smithsonian is perfect for people of all ages. All the museums are located relatively close to each other allowing for easy and affordable access as transportation costs are eliminated. It may be difficult for first time visitors to not become instantly overwhelmed with the institution’s size and depth, it can be quite intimidating. Ideally, tourists should set aside a day or two for each museum. Furthermore, it is wise to take full advantage of the information offered at The Castle as it is very informative and essential to understanding the layout and access routes of the institution’s vast complex. Common questions and concerns can be answered via computers within The Castle for those comfortable with using them. Other queries can be directed toward the helpful and friendly staff that is knowledgeable on anything having to do with the Smithsonian Institution. In closing, it should be noted that each museum contains at least one gift shop offering souvenirs.


Displays In Air And Space Museum


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