Not since 1855 has the Smithsonian been riven by a controversy to equal that precipitated by the proposed Enola Gay exhibit. The issue then was whether the Smithsonian should be the national library, as the librarian Charles Coffin Jewett wanted, or a research institute, as Secretary Joseph Henry preferred. Henry won, but not before a congressional investigation led by Jewett's backers on Capitol Hill put Henry's leadership to the test. Today the possibility of a similar congressional investigation hangs threateningly over the Smithsonian.
The Smithsonian is currently seen neither as a national library nor as a research institute. Rather it is regarded as a museum, or collection of museums, whose principal purpose is to put on exhibitions for the general public. Its published annual report no longer even lists the publications of its research scholars. The jewel in the crown of all Smithsonian museums is the National Air and Space Museum (nasm), the world's most visited museum. The history of its establishment, dating from its authorization (but not funding) by Congress in 1946, reflects a continuing debate between those who wanted to "memorialize" and "enshrine" the sacred symbols of American ingenuity in conquering air and space (such as the Wright Brothers Flyer and the Apollo II spacecraft), and those who wanted to "educate" and "interpret" their broader meaning.