"The Castle": The original Smithsonian
This is the place to go for the necessary overview of the vast storehouse of artefacts and knowledge that the institution possesses, but however well done the Visitors' Center is, the building is really much more interesting from the outside as an example of mid-19th century Romanesque Revival architecture.
The original contents of the Smithsonian were housed here; however, the public precincts of the building are now largely devoted to the task of introducing visitors to the Smithsonian Museums. The rest of the building houses administrative offices.
The world-reknowned Smithsonian Institution has a remarkable history. It came about because of an extraordinary bequest by a 19th century English Oxford don, one James Smithson, the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, first Duke of Northumberland. After struggling for years to be accepted by his father, he developed a rather heightened sense of the importance of "legacy." According to the terms of his will, his fortune was to go first to a nephew, who died just a few years later. In the event that the nephew had no heir, then the money should go "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." This was in fact what happened. His
assets were converted into 105 bags of gold sovereigns worth some US $515,000, in those days a vast sum.
At first, many people, including members of Congress, felt it in some sense undignfied to accept such a gift. Better sense prevailed - not least because of the influence of former president, John Quincy Adams - and in 1846 the structure we still see today was built. During the tenure of its first secretary, physicist Joeseph Henry, it served as a scientific center. It was only after his death that it assumed its role as a repository for national treasures, for which it is so justly renowned today. It now comprises 14 museums, 8 of them on the Mall, with an annual budget of more than a half billion dollars, making it the largest and richest institution
of its kind in the world.
The following Washington museums make up the Smithsonian Institution:
Arts and Industries Building
Freer Gallery of Art
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
National Air and Space Museum
National Museum of African Art
National Museum of American History
National Museum of Natural History
National Museum of the American Indian (projected opening: 2002)
Off the Mall
National Museum of American Art
National Portrait Gallery
National Postal Museum
National Zoological Park
New York City
Cooper-Heweitt National Design Museum