The Columbian Institute (1816-1838) was first organized as the Metropolitan Society, with the professed purpose of reducing the United States' dependence on a purely European cultural heritage. Its principal goal was utilitarian; the society concentrated on encouraging, by correspondence, exchanges, and a program of publication, the diffusion of information about agriculture, manufacturing, and natural resources. Though initially conceived as a local body, the Society soon decided to expand its operations, and so, still in 1816, changed its name to the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences, under which name it was incorporated by Congress in 1818.
The Institute led a desultory existence. Its first president, Edward Cutbush, a naval surgeon, was energetic; but the Institute was never able to establish itself on a sound footing. Much of its membership seems to have been only casually interested in the Institute's work. Perhaps for this reason, and certainly because Congress gave no aid, there was always a dearth of money. Nor did an 1818 reorganization which added the fields of the liberal arts to its interests prove useful. In 1820 the Institute obtained a plot of land on the Mall and laid out a small botanical garden, virtually its only concrete accomplishment. A few natural history specimens and a small library were collected. The Institute's charter expired in 1838 and, in 1841, it was absorbed by the National Institute.