The Smithsonian Institution—the world’s largest museum and research complex—includes 19 museums and galleries and the National Zoological Park. The total number of artifacts, works of art and specimens in the Smithsonian’s collections is estimated at 137 million. The bulk of this material—more than 126 million specimens and artifacts—is part of the National Museum of Natural History. In addition, the Smithsonian maintains 1.5 million library volumes, including rare books and 89,000 cubic feet of archival material.
Among the vast collections are irreplaceable national icons, examples of everyday life and scientific material vital to the study of the world’s scientific and cultural heritage. The objects in Smithsonian collections range from insects and meteorites to locomotives and spacecraft. The scope is staggering—from a magnificent collection of ancient Chinese bronzes to the Star-Spangled Banner; from a 3.5 billion-year-old fossil to the Apollo lunar landing module; from the ruby slippers featured in The Wizard of Oz to presidential paintings and memorabilia. Collection objects vary in size, from the Concorde at 202 feet to the Fairfly wasp at .0067 of an inch. The largest single collection is Natural History’s Paleobiology collection with more than 4.26 million fossil specimens, ranging from dinosaur skeletons to microscopic foraminifera.
Only a small portion of the Smithsonian’s collections (less than 2 percent) is on display in the museums at any given time. Many collections are acquired and solely used for research purposes.
Art Collections: 324,200 Artworks, Objects and Artifacts
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—9,000 artworks, objects and artifacts
Collection includes more than 900 works of Asian art (jades, bronzes, Chinese lacquer ware, Chinese paintings, Near Eastern works in silver, bronze and gold) donated by Arthur M. Sackler and recent acquisitions such as the Robert O. Muller collection of 19th-and-20th century woodblock prints.
Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum—206,700 artworks, objects and artifacts
Works in such fields as drawings and prints, rare books, textiles, wall coverings, furniture, ceramics, glass, metalwork and jewelry, with areas of interest in graphic design, industrial design and architecture.
Freer Gallery of Art—25,000 artworks, objects and artifacts
Works of art from Asia include paintings, sculptures, metal ware, ceramics, manuscripts and lacquer ware. The museum also houses 19th- and early 20th-century American art, including a major collection by James McNeill Whistler.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden—11,500 artworks, objects and artifacts
Collection of modern and contemporary art—paintings, sculptures and works on paper—includes a nucleus of works given or bequeathed to the Smithsonian by founding donor Joseph H. Hirshhorn (1899-1981). The collection is kept current with gifts from other donors and an active acquisitions program.
National Museum of African Art—10,000 artworks, objects and artifacts
African art, including ancient and contemporary works in wood, metal, ceramics, cloth and ivory.
National Portrait Gallery—19,800 artworks, objects and artifacts
Collection comprises prints, paintings, sculptures, photographs and drawings of Americans who have made important contributions to the nation. It includes more than 5,400 glass-plate negatives from the studios of Mathew Brady, official portraits of all U.S. presidents and original artwork from more than 1,600 Time magazine covers.
Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery—42,200 artworks, objects and artifacts
The museum’s collection features American art from all periods—Colonial to contemporary—in all media, including painting, sculpture, works on paper and photography.
The Renwick Gallery features 20th-century American crafts.
History and Culture Collections: 10.2 Million Objects
Anacostia Community Museum—7,800 artifacts
Decorative arts, textiles, glassware, folk art and anthropological objects.
National Air and Space Museum—58,300 artifacts
Collection includes full-size planes, missiles, satellites, spacecraft, as well as thousands of smaller items like instruments, memorabilia, clothing, awards and models. The collection also includes thousands of works of art pertaining to aviation and space.
National Museum of American History—3.3 million artifacts (in the following divisions):
- Culture and Arts—Collections document the history of music and musical instruments, sports and recreation, theater, film, popular culture, photographic history and the graphic arts.
- Home and Community Life—Collections document home furnishings, the production and consumption of food and beverages, clothing, religion, community organizations, patterns of migration and immigration and education. Family structure, life cycles, childhood and the development of leisure time are examined, along with the roles of technology, invention and play in home and community life.
- Medicine and Science—Collections document the material culture of the biological, medical and physical sciences in the areas of medicine and health, dentistry, pharmacy, psychology, disability, public health, biotechnology, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, meteorology, navigation, surveying, nuclear power, materials science, mathematics, computers, science education and the environment.
- Armed Forces History—Collections document the history of the men and women of the armed forces of the United States, the Japanese-American internment experience during World War II and the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
- Political History—Collections document the history of North American democracy and the nation’s political culture from Colonial settlements to the present (divided into three major areas: political campaigns, political history and reform movements). The division also includes the National Numismatics Collection—consisting of more than 1.5 million coins, medals and paper currency—which preserves the role of money in the economic history of the world.
- Work and Industry—Artifacts, documents, photographs and oral histories relate to work and industry in the United States, with a focus on agriculture, natural resources, timekeeping, retail, mining, engineering, electricity, telephone, telegraphy and industry and transportation.
- Archives Center—13,000 cubic feet of documents complement the museum’s collections: personal papers, business records, graphic materials, trade literature, photographs, information and reference files, recordings, and motion-picture films and videotapes.
National Museum of the American Indian—827,700 artifacts
Collection includes fine carvings in wood, horn and stone from the Northwest Coast of North America; dance masks from the American Southwest; textiles from Peru, Mexico and the Navajo area of the United States; basketry from the American Southwest and Southeast and from Peru; pre-Columbian gold work from Mexico and Peru; jade objects made by the Olmec and the Maya; Inuit carved masks; Aztec mosaics; feather work from the Amazon; and painted hides and garments from the North American Plains.
National Museum of African American History and Culture—9,900 artifacts
The museum is creating a collection, which will include works of art, historical artifacts, photographs, moving images, archival documents and other materials. Subjects will include the era of slavery, the period of Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement, and objects also will reflect the historical and cultural links of African Americans to the African diaspora.
National Postal Museum—6 million artifacts
Collection contains prestigious U.S. and international postal issues and specialized collections, archival postal documents and 3-D objects that trace the evolution of the postal services.
Natural Science Collections: Approximately 126.5 Million Objects and Specimens
National Museum of Natural History—More than 126.5 million objects and specimens (in the following departments):
- Anthropology—Artifacts and specimens representing cultures from around the world; contains one of the largest collections of North American Indian artifacts, including baskets, pottery, textiles and utilitarian objects
- Botany—Algae, flowering plants, pressed specimens and microscopic plants
- Entomology—Butterflies and moths, mosquitoes, beetles; collection includes all 30 of the known orders of insects
- Invertebrate Zoology—Marine animals, including sponges, crayfish, mollusks, worms and shrimp
- Mineral Sciences—Gems, minerals, rocks and meteorites
- Paleobiology—Fossil flora and fauna, sharks’ teeth and microscopic organisms on slides
- Vertebrate Zoology—Mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, amphibians; collection includes birds’ eggs and nests, fur pelts and elephant skulls
National Zoological Park—1,800 animals
The Zoo’s living collection is divided into several departments: mammals, herpetology, ornithology, Amazonia, invertebrates and zoological research. The Zoo’s Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, located at Front Royal, Va., is a breeding preserve for rare and endangered species.
How Artifacts Are Added to the Smithsonian
Curators also consider the size of an object, its exhibit potential—physical condition, amount of work required to prepare it for display—and its “readability” (whether a visitor can understand the object by looking at it). For additions to the scientific or research collections, curators seek specimens that fill gaps in the existing collections.
Most artifacts are donated to the Smithsonian by individuals, private collectors and federal agencies such as NASA, the U.S. Postal Service and others. Thousands of items also come to the Smithsonian through field expeditions, bequests, purchases, exchanges with other museums, and, in the case of living plants and animals, by birth and propagation. Museum curators and directors seek objects that are appropriate to their particular collections, authentic, and of historic, artistic or scientific significance. After the decision is made to officially accept an artifact, it is given an accession number. Catalog information about each item—what it is, accession number, donor’s name, date, condition, provenance, historical and scientific context, and location at the Smithsonian—is recorded in the particular department so that staff members and researchers will have easy access to the information.
Most objects that are formally “accessioned” become part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collections, held in trust for the American people. However, on some occasions, objects are “deaccessioned” or removed from the collections following a careful review process by curators, directors and, where appropriate, by board members. These deaccessioned objects may be transferred to other organizations such as museums or other appropriate nonprofit organizations.
Why Collections Are So Large
The majority of the Institution’s holdings (92 percent) are part of the scientific collections at the National Museum of Natural History. While the vast majority of these specimens probably will never be put on display for the public—not many visitors care to see a million beetles—they serve as a valuable resource for Smithsonian scientists and other researchers who come from around the world to study these comprehensive collections. A researcher needs many specimens—males, females, various age groups, specimens representing various regions of the world—to carry out systematic or taxonomic studies that are the basis of many scientific investigations.
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Linda St. Thomas