© The New York Times/Lexey Swall

America has many fine museums, but only one as profoundly American as the Smithsonian Institution.

Museum, in fact, hardly seems adequate to describe a place that has helped this country understand the world and itself—the good, the bad, and the downright delightful—since before the Civil War. Where else can you see both insects and airplanes? Ancient Egyptian art and Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz?  Harriet Tubman’s hymnal in one exhibit and, in another, the 66-million-year-old skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex that once roamed what is now Montana?

The Smithsonian’s enthusiasm for artifacts rare and curious became legend almost as soon as it was founded. Mark Twain wrote about the institution’s appetite for “extraordinary cabbages and peculiar bullfrogs” as early as 1869, long before it had grown into today’s mega-complex of 19 museums and galleries, as well as research programs, cultural festivals, a magazine, and a beloved zoo.

Size alone makes it hard to imagine America’s capital without the Smithsonian. But our national museum’s existence is a bit of a fluke. The idea came not from a President or patriot, but from a Paris-born Englishman who died in 1829. James Smithson, a scientist whose father was the Duke of Northumberland, never set foot in the United States. Yet his will mysteriously directed his family fortune towards the establishment of a Washington, D.C., museum “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

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The estate might have gone unclaimed had President Andrew Jackson not urged Congress to pursue the windfall. It did—after some debate—and in 1846, the Smithsonian Institution began.

Since then, the Smithsonian has evolved into a museum as democratic as the young country it grew alongside. Admission remains gloriously and improbably free. And the institution famously features quilters and woodworkers alongside statesmen and movie stars. “It’s a place where stories are shared, where creativity and intellectual exploration are honored and encouraged,” says Sabrina Lynn Motley. She directs the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which attracts nearly a million people to the National Mall each summer to immerse themselves in traditional food, music, dance, and crafts. “It’s a place for us to reflect who we are, where we’ve been, and where we hope to go,” she says.

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That purpose is especially evident at the Smithsonian’s latest venture, the highly experiential National Museum of African American History & Culture, which opened in September in a glittering modern building designed by Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye.

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Inside, exhibits include remnants from a sunken slave ship displayed in a tight gallery designed to mimic the confines felt by Africans who made the transatlantic journey. Elsewhere, there’s Chuck Berry’s 1973 red Cadillac convertible and the original neon sign from Soul Train. “You laugh; you cry,” says chief curator Jacquelyn D. Serwer. “There’s every spectrum of emotion when you go through the museum.”

More than 750,000 people have already experienced those sorrows and joys, with tickets for specific dates getting snatched up months in advance. But it’s worth the effort. Once inside, the average visitor stays for an astounding six hours—something that would only happen at the Smithsonian.