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The Smithsonian Institution is an educational and research institute and associated museum complex, administered and funded by the government of the United States and by funds from its endowment, contributions, and profits from its shops and its magazine. Most of its facilities are located in Washington, D.C., but its 19 museums, zoo, and 9 research centers include sites in New York City, Virginia, Panama, and elsewhere. It has over 136 million items in its collections, publishes a monthly magazine named Smithsonian and employs the Smithsonian Police to protect visitors, staff and the property of the museums.

The Smithsonian Institution was founded for the "increase and diffusion" of knowledge from a bequest to the United States by the British scientist James Smithson (1765–1829), who had never visited the United States himself. In Smithson's will, he stated that should his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, die without heirs, the Smithson estate would go to the government of the United States for creating an "Establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge among men". After the nephew died without heirs in 1835, President Andrew Jackson informed Congress of the bequest, which amounted to 104,960 gold sovereigns, or US$500,000 ($9,235,277 in 2005 U.S. dollars after inflation).

Eight years later, Congress passed an act establishing the Smithsonian Institution, a hybrid public/private partnership, and the act was signed into law on August 10, 1846 by James Polk. (See 20 U.S.C. § 41 (Ch. 178, Sec. 1, 9 Stat. 102).) The bill was drafted by Indiana Democratic Congressman Robert Dale Owen, a Socialist and son of Robert Owen, the father of the cooperative movement.

The crenellated architecture of the Smithsonian Institution Building on the National Mall has made it known informally as "The Castle". It was built by architect James Renwick, Jr. and completed in 1855. Many of the Institution's other buildings are historical and architectural landmarks. Detroit philanthropist Charles Lang Freer's donation of his private collection for Freer Gallery, and funds to build the museum, was among the Smithsonian's first major donations from a private individual.

Though the Smithsonian's first secretary, Joseph Henry, wanted the Institution to be a center for scientific research, before long it became the depository for various Washington and U.S. government collections.

The voyage of the U.S. Navy circumnavigated the globe between 1838 and 1842. The United States Exploring Expedition amassed thousands of animal specimens, an herbarium of 50,000 examples, shells and minerals, tropical birds, jars of seawater and ethnographic specimens from the South Pacific. These specimens and artifacts became part of the Smithsonian collections, as did those collected by the military and civilian surveys in the American West, such as the Mexican Boundary Survey and Pacific Railroad Surveys, which assembled many Native American artifacts as well as natural history specimens.

The Institution became a magnet for natural scientists from 1857 to 1866, who formed a group called the Megatherium Club.

The asteroid 3773 Smithsonian is named in honor of the Institution.

The Smithsonian Institution is established as a trust instrumentality by act of Congress, and it is functionally and legally a body of the federal government. More than two-thirds of the Smithsonian's workforce of some 6,300 persons are employees of the federal government. The Smithsonian is represented by attorneys from the United States Department of Justice in litigation, and money judgments against the Smithsonian are also paid out of the federal treasury.

The nominal head of the Institution is the Chancellor, an office which has always been held by the Chief Justice of the United States at the time. The affairs of the Smithsonian are conducted by its 17-member board of regents, eight members of which constitute a quorum for the conduct of business. Eight of the regents are United States officials: the Vice President (one of his few official legal duties) and the Chief Justice of the United States, three United States Senators appointed by the Vice President in his capacity as President of the Senate, and three Members of the U.S. House of Representatives appointed by the Speaker of the House. The remaining nine regents are "persons other than Members of Congress", who are appointed by joint resolution of Congress. Regents are allowed reimbursement for their expenses in connection with attendance at meetings, but their service as regents is uncompensated. The day-to-day operations of the Smithsonian are supervised by a salaried "Secretary" chosen by the board of regents. The Secretary of the Smithsonian has the privilege of the floor at the United States Senate.


January 2009

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