How the Smithsonian Institution Works

The Secretaries Leave Legacies of Their Own

Wayne Clough, the Smithsonian Institution's 12th secretary.
Wayne Clough, the Smithsonian Institution's 12th secretary.
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

It would be almost another decade before the Smithsonian Institution Building, often affectionately referred to as "the Castle," would be complete. But that didn't stop its early leaders -- starting with Joseph Henry -- from commencing to collect artifacts. The first contribution came in 1848, when Robert Hare, a chemist at the University of Pennsylvania, donated some of his scientific apparatus to the Institution.

Over the intervening years, the Smithsonian's successive secretaries weren't shy when it came to seeking donations and funds to expand the Institution's collections and facilities. The second secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird, interacted with the majority of the exhibitors at the Centennial Exposition of 1876, talking them into donating their exhibits after the expo concluded. He also convinced Congress to fund the construction of the Arts and Industries Building.

Baird's successor, Samuel Pierpont Langley, was responsible for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the Children's Room and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He was followed by Charles Doolittle Walcott, who helped architect the opening of the National Museum of Natural History. It was also during his time that the Smithsonian acquired the original Star-Spangled Banner.

Charles Greeley Abbot came next, and he was instrumental in securing both the Spirit of St. Louis and the 1903 Wright Flyer for the Institution, as well as spearheading other expansion efforts. Following Abbot came Alexander Wetmore, who oversaw the establishment of the National Air and Space Museum, and the modernization and inauguration of several new exhibit halls. Leonard Carmichael, the Smithsonian's seventh secretary, oversaw the transfer of the Patent Office Building to the Institution (it would open as the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery a few years later), as well as construction of the National Museum of American History and several other capital improvement projects.

S. Dillon Ripley came after Carmichael, and lots of developments happened on his 20-year watch, among them the establishment of the Anacostia Community Museum, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the National Museum of African Art. Several additional initiatives also sprang up, like the Center for Folklore and Cultural Heritage, the Conservation and Research Center of the National Zoo, and Smithsonian Magazine.

During the tenure of Robert McCormick Adams, the National Postal Museum opened, and he and his successor, I. Michael Heyman, both worked to establish and secure funds for the National Museum of the American Indian. Heyman started up the Smithsonian's first Web site in 1995 and also secured the namesake donation for the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, which, along with the National Museum of the American Indian, opened under the watch of the Smithsonian's 11th Secretary, Lawrence M. Small. The current secretary of the Smithsonian, Wayne Clough, took over in July 2008 and has since directed the reopening of the National Museum of American History with the debut of the Sant Ocean Hall.

Taken as a team, the secretaries have contributed seamlessly to the long and constant effort of furthering the Smithsonian's touted position as "the world's largest museum complex and research organization." So now that we've gotten a better idea of the wide-reaching Smithsonian's scope, we'll learn more about some of the scientific endeavors the Institution partakes in.