On Aug. 10, 1846, U.S. President James K. Polk signed the legislation that established the Smithsonian Institution as a trust administered by a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian. Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian (1846-1878), strove to develop the Smithsonian into the nation’s first major research institute for science. During his tenure, the Smithsonian gained widespread acclaim not only as the country’s foremost scientific research institute but also as a facilitator of international scientific dialogue. Congressionally-mandated programs for the public kept Americans informed about Smithsonian activities.
Spencer Fullerton Baird, the Smithsonian’s second secretary (1878-1887) was an avid naturalist, collector and a pioneer in museum collecting and display. Whereas Henry had envisioned the Smithsonian primarily as a research institute, Baird began to develop the Smithsonian into a national museum. Secretary Baird’s vision coincided with a growing sense of nationalism surrounding the celebration of the U.S. Centennial. By 1878 Congress had formally given responsibility for the U.S. National Museum to the Smithsonian Institution. During the Baird years, the Smithsonian became a showcase for the nation’s history, resources, and treasures.
Since its founding 165 years ago, the Institution has expanded into the world’s largest museum and research complex, with 19 museums, the National Zoo and nine research facilities, including the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute.