In 1826, the British scientist James Smithson wrote an unusual will designating the United States as the recipient of a considerable fortune: a gift of $508,318 “to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” That bequest, worth about $310 million in today’s dollars, has since grown into a massive educational complex home to more than two dozen museums and galleries, multiple research centers, and libraries and archives staffed by the thousands.
Today, the Smithsonian Institution announced it had received a gift of $200 million—the largest since Smithson's original bequest.
The donor is Jeff Bezos, founder and executive chair of Amazon. Bezos, who revolutionized the retail industry, was also the 2016 recipient of Smithsonian magazine’s prestigious American Ingenuity Award for his innovative and expansive spaceflight program Blue Origin, which is dedicated to lowering the cost of spaceflight with its reusable launch vehicles. In six days, the company will launch its 16th New Shepard flight to space, carrying a crew—including Bezos—on board for the first time.
Bezos’ donation will support the ongoing, massive renovation of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, with $70 million offered to enable a technological transformation of the museum’s galleries and public spaces. The remaining $130 million will be used to inaugurate an education center called the Bezos Learning Center.
“The Smithsonian plays a vital role in igniting the imaginations of our future builders and dreamers,” says Bezos in a statement. “Every child is born with great potential, and it’s inspiration that unlocks that potential. My love affair with science, invention and space did that for me, and I hope this gift does that for others.”
“Since its inception, the Smithsonian has benefited from both federal funding and the generosity of visionary donors,” says Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch in the statement. “Almost 175 years ago, Mr. Smithson’s inaugural gift laid the groundwork for this innovative approach, bringing together private philanthropy and public funding. Today, as we emerge from a pivotal moment in history, Jeff’s donation builds on that original tradition and will help us reimagine and transform the Smithsonian.”
Bunch adds, “This historic gift will help the Smithsonian achieve its goal of reaching every classroom in America by creating a world-class learning center with access and inspiration at its heart. We are grateful to Jeff for his generosity and for his passion and commitment to education, innovation and technology. This donation will fuel our nation’s future leaders and innovators.”
The education center will be housed on the current grounds of the Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on the east side facing the U.S. Capitol. It will replace the glass-enclosed cafeteria building.
“At this moment, the first human to set foot on Mars might be in elementary school,” says Ellen Stofan, the Smithsonian’s under secretary for science and research and former director of the National Air and Space Museum, in the release. “As the largest and most visited aerospace museum in the world, the museum wants to spark that passion and enrich the imagination and ingenuity of every student who visits the Smithsonian. For many years, Jeff has been an avid supporter of the Smithsonian and the museum’s mission to ‘ignite tomorrow.’ With this gift, we will be able to continue our transformation and further expand the National Air and Space Museum’s ability to reveal the possibilities of space exploration.”
Bezos—who is a “huge space enthusiast, as we all know,” according to Smithsonian spokesperson Linda St. Thomas—previously gifted a founding donation of $1 million dollars to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The new education center will fund the kinds of inspirational programs and activities that engage young minds in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics). Bezos’ donation will also be used to foster critical skills and develop tools needed by teachers hoping to better utilize the Smithsonian’s collections. The center will network across all Smithsonian museums to promote “inquiry-based learning,” a philosophy that combines multiple learning strategies, including using objects to develop evidence-based claims, building reasoning skills, better engaging with layers of complexity and providing opportunities for interpretation.
“Jeff’s early curiosity about space exploration helped inspire him to think big and act boldly, and as a result he has played a defining role in the expansion of the internet,” says Smithsonian Board of Regents Chair Steve Case, chairman and CEO of Revolution and founder of America Online, in the statement. “We’re delighted that Jeff is making this commitment to help us extend the Smithsonian’s reach and impact, as we seek to inspire the next generation of scientists, astronauts, engineers, educators and entrepreneurs.”
In 2019, Bezos was the recipient of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery’s “Portrait of a Nation Prize.” The gallery holds in its collections a 2019 oil portrait of Bezos by the renowned photorealist artist Robert McCurdy. In 2016, Bezos was a featured speaker at the National Air and Space Museum for the John H. Glenn Lecture in Space History and the National Museum of American History honored him with the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal.