The World’s Largest Museum Complex

Many first time visitors to Washington, D.C. think The Smithsonian is one museum – or a museum housed in several buildings along The National Mall. But, you may be surprised to learn that there are 20 separate museums and galleries included in The Smithsonian Institution. Well, one is not really a museum or a gallery – The National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian! There are also 9 research centers and 168 affiliated museums in 39 states, Puerto Rico, and Panama. The Cooper–Hewitt, National Design Museum and The National Museum of the American Indian's George Gustav Heye Center are in New York, but all of the other 17, plus the Zoo, are located in and around the DC Metro area. One building on the Mall, The Arts and Industries Building is closed for renovation, and one is under construction; the new National Museum of African American History and Culture is slated to open in 2015.

Eleven of the collections are located along the National Mall including one of the two Air and Space Museums. The other is the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia near Dulles Airport.

Remarkably, admission to all of the Smithsonian museums, galleries, and the zoo is free.

The origin of this national treasure is a gift from an Englishman named James Smithson - a gift the United
States almost did not get. He was born in Paris to hide his birth from the aristocrats and royalty of England. James Smithson’s father, born Hugh Smithson, was a Baron, an Earl, a Duke, a Privy Counselor, and a Knight. However, his mother was not Hugh Smithson’s wife, the Duchess of Northumberland.

From humble beginnings and without the noble titles of his father, James Smithson returned to England, and after studying chemistry and mineralogy, accumulated a fortune of his own. In his will he stated that, since he had not married and, since he had no children, his fortune would go to his Nephew. However, if, at the time of his death, his Nephew was not alive, and if his Nephew had no children, his estate was to go to the government of the United States for the founding of an educational institution in Washington, D.C. and would be named the Smithsonian Institution. Smithson did survive his nephew and his nephew did not have any children.

This large gift did not make England happy, especially since James Smithson never even visited The United States.

And so, James Smithson left his bequest "to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."

There is too much information about the Smithsonian to include in this magazine (the Smithsonian publishes two of their own). Grab your smartphone, download the TravelHost App, and scan the code on the National Mall Map. Make a plan of what you want to see – or – just wander and see what you can fit into your schedule. Before you set out, remember it would take weeks to see everything on display in the World’s largest museum complex. So rather than hope to see it all – enjoy what you have time for and plan to return to Washington often.

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19 Jan 2016


By Lane Gurel
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