Episode 35: The Smithsonian Institution

Welcome to Slow American English, the podcast for learners of American English. I’m your host, Karren Tolliver.

This is episode number 35: The Smithsonian Institution

In this podcast, you learn about the largest museum in the world, the Smithsonian Institution.

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The Smithsonian Institution is America’s national museum, but it is so much more than that. It’s actually a museum, education and research complex, the largest in the world.

The Smithsonian had an interesting beginning. Back in the early 1800s, James Smithson bequeathed his estate to the United States. His stipulation for the bequest was that the US should found “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

The weird thing was, James Smithson was born in England and never visited America in his life! No one knows why he wanted the US to have his money to form the Smithsonian, but Congress accepted. After years of discussion and debate, the Smithsonian Institution was established in 1846 as a trust. In this case, a trust means it is run by a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian and paid for by the interest from Smithson’s money. We can say that Smithson’s money was the first endowment for the Smithsonian.

The first building for the Smithsonian was the “castle”, a red sandstone building that opened in 1855. At that time it was in a rather remote location, but other museums and governmental buildings grew up around it. Today, it’s a famous landmark on the National Mall, a national park that includes the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the US Capitol and the White House.

The Smithsonian soon grew out of the castle, and today there are ten other Smithsonian museums and galleries on the National Mall. It would be absolutely impossible to see all of the Smithsonian in one visit. In addition, six more museums and the National Zoo stand in the DC area, plus two more in New York as well. Not only that, the Smithsonian works closely with 168 other museums in 39 other states, Panama and Puerto Rico.

You can imagine that the Smithsonian has millions of objects. In fact, it has been called the nation’s attic because of the huge numbers and many types of objects contained there. The artifacts are organized into museums and galleries that house specific groups of objects. For example, the Air and Space Museum has airplanes and spacecraft, such as a replica of the Wright brothers’ glider, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis airplane, a lunar module from the moon landing, and spacesuits.

In addition to the mummies, dinosaur bones and artworks, other interesting objects in the many Smithsonian collections include:

  • George Washington’s tent

  • Ben Franklin’s cane

  • locks of hair from the first 14 US presidents

  • Lincoln’s top hat

  • Julia Child’s kitchen

  • early artificial-heart technology

  • part of Route 66

  • Indiana Jones’ fedora and bullwhip

  • Star Trek memorabilia

  • an Elvis Presley recording

  • the Hope diamond

  • and the original teddy bear named after Theodore Roosevelt

Guests can also see an IMAX theater and a planetarium on a visit to the Smithsonian. Tickets to visit the Smithsonian are always free. In addition to the original endowment by Smithson, the museum receives other government funding plus donations from private citizens.

The Smithsonian is involved with many research programs worldwide. It also produces two magazines, Smithsonian and Air and Space.There is so much more to say about the Smithsonian, but I hope this podcast has given you an idea of the immensity of the institution.


That’s the podcast for this time. Slow American English is written and produced by Karren Tolliver. Copyright 2017. All rights reserved.

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This has been Slow American English. I’m Karren Tolliver. Thank you for listening.