A Country of Museums

Museums not only serve as a home for groundbreaking discoveries and important artifacts but also as a wealth of knowledge that makes history accessible to the masses. The importance of museums is celebrated on a global level each year on May 18, with International Museum Day (IMD).

What began in 1977 as a way to engage public interest in museums, IMD is now observed in more than 150 countries and at 37,000 museums worldwide.

In addition to having its own Museum Day, which typically takes place in the fall, the United States has always shown impetus in preserving historical, cultural, and scientific information for the public.

One of the first purveyors of American museums—James Smithson—was actually not American at all, but an English scientist who bequeathed his fortune to the United States “for use in Washington.” His only request? The foundation be named the Smithsonian Institution.

Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives | Photograph of a portrait of James Smithson (1765-1829), founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution, as an adult. The photograph is of a miniature portrait of Smithson done in oil on ivory by Henri Johns on May 11, 1816 at Aix la Chapelle, France. It was purchased in 1878 from George Henry de la Batut of France.

In August of 1846, the Senate and President James K. Polk passed the organization of the Smithsonian Institution into law, establishing a centuries-long tradition of research, preservation, and learning in America.

Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives | Smithsonian Institution Building, “The Castle,” c. 1867.

Now with nineteen separate museums and a zoo under its umbrella, the Smithsonian has the most important and diverse collections in the country. The foundation has created museums dedicated to art and design, African American history, and air and space exploration, among others. But the list of America’s most valuable museums doesn’t stop there.

Photo: Eric Long, Smithsonian | East-facing, wide-angle view from approximately 40 feet altitude of the north entrance facade of the Smithsonian Institution Building ("The Castle") on Jefferson Drive S.W. at sunrise with the U.S. Capitol Building in the background, Washington, D.C. on Aug. 27, 2013.

The opportunities for an educational trip to the museum are nearly endless in this country. Have an affinity for bizarre biology and medical miracles? The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia delivers all things strange. Want to learn more about Norwegian-American heritage? A visit to Vesterheim in Iowa will have you brushing up on the history of one of the country’s oldest immigrant groups.

These museums and so many others are just waiting to be explored, but with so many great options (and new ones popping up every day), it can be hard to narrow down the best.

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