Smithsonian Institution

 Jesse Brauner
Smithsonian Institution

Headquartered in the United States capital of Washington D.C., and with affiliates all throughout North America (and a few beyond), the Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum and research complex in world today.

Interestingly, the founding of North America’s most significant cultural institution can actually be traced to an Englishman. It was James Smithson, for whom the institution is named, that provided the initial funding. Smithson was the illegitimate child of a wealthy English father and spent much of his life as a traveler. Upon his death in 1829, Smithson bequeathed his estate equaling half a million dollars- a substantial sum at the time- to the United States for the purpose of founding “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

Smithson never said why he decided to leave his fortune to the United States- a country that, despite his travels, he had never visited- but regardless of his reasoning, seven years after his death, Congress accepted the money, and on August 10th 1846, President James K. Polk established the trust that would become known as the Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian boasts the unique distinction of maintaining over a dozen museums, multiple research facilities, and North America’s National Zoological Park. Some of the more famous member organizations include:

The National Air and Space Museum

The National Portrait Gallery

The National Museum of the American Indian

The National Museum of Natural History