Nation's Venerable Institution: Smithsonian Observes 150 Years of Culture with Yearlong Events

Article excerpt

Stand on the Mall for only a few minutes, and a tourist will approach and ask for directions to "the Smithsonian."

Ah, you know the answer. The Smithsonian Institution includes the world's most visited museum (National Air and Space Museum), largest collection of American art (National Museum of American Art), the National Zoological Park and a dozen other museums, galleries and research facilities.

And the Smithsonian reaches out beyond this coast. In Los Angeles, people waited in line for more than two hours in February to see Amelia Earhart's flight suit, dinosaur bones, a 170-carat necklace and other objects that are part of a traveling exhibit commemorating the institution's 150th anniversary.

Certainly visitors to the National Museum of Natural History here probably won't notice that the dinosaur exhibit is a few bones short; there's plenty left on display. The museums, galleries and research facilities that make up the Smithsonian Institution contain more than 140 million works of art and specimens.

Smithsonian celebrations have always been on a grand scale - even for the nation's capital. For the first Festival of American Folklife in 1976, the Smithsonian brought people from all over the United States and 35 other countries for a 12-week showcase of grass-roots culture.

Eleven years before that, world-renowned scholars discoursed on the state of knowledge; university presidents, ambassadors and other dignitaries paraded across the Mall; bands played and balloons floated through the air for the bicentennial anniversary of James Smithson's birth in 1765.

But this year's 150th anniversary blast requires a new superlative: the longest anniversary celebration. It is a yearlong happening with special exhibits and events, television programs, a commemorative coin and commissioned publications. On Aug. 10 and 11 there will be a free two-day festival on the Mall, but each month throughout the year, new events and exhibits are scheduled at the Smithsonian museums and galleries.

Honor the Source

Begin your own tribute to the Smithsonian by learning about its founding. "The Smithsonian: 150 Years of Adventure, Discovery and Wonder" is a fascinating account of the institution's history. James Smithson, a scientist and illegitimate son of British nobility, bequeathed his fortune - about $500,000 - to establish an institution in Washington for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge."

The first response to the gift, which in today's terms would represent $6.75 million, came in July 1835, when an American official learned of the bequest. He sent the will to the secretary of state, along with a letter suggesting that Smithson might have been insane.

One congressman proclaimed that it was "beneath the dignity of the United States to receive presents of this kind from anyone." Another argued against acceptance saying, "Every whippersnapper vagabond . . . might think it proper to have his name distinguished in the same way."

Fortunately, former President John Quincy Adams, who had become a Massachusetts congressman, enthusiastically advocated acceptance.

Smithson's broad mandate, the increase and diffusion of knowledge, provoked further debate. One congressman wanted to create a library; another proposed a teaching school; a third supported a scientic observatory. Later, the effort nearly went under when a government official invested the funds in state bonds, most of which defaulted. Adams, again, protected the bequest and insisted that the federal government make up the loss.

Visit with the directors

Next, take a look at the results of that gift through the eyes of a few lucky individuals who get a paycheck for going to the Smithsonian. They direct its museums, galleries and the zoo. Here are some of the responses directors gave when they were asked about their own Smithsonian favorites and first experiences with the institution. …