Mr. Smithson’s Smithsonian

In August 1838, an American diplomat named Richard Rush arrived back in New York City after a stormy six-week voyage across the Atlantic. Rush had spent two years in England, securing in a British court a U.S. claim to an unusual bequest. He returned with eleven boxes containing 104,960 gold sovereigns and change, along with the mineral collection, papers, library, and personal effects of a little-known British scientist. Rush turned the gold over to the U.S. Treasury, which melted it down to yield $508,318, an enormous sum at the time, all of which now belonged to the United States. But the United States wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.

Why James Smithson left his estate to a nation he had never set foot in remains a mystery to this day, for he left no explanation of his motivations or intentions. A gentleman scientist with many interests, and the means and leisure time to pursue them, Smithson conducted research in chemistry, geology, and mineralogy. He traveled throughout Europe but never visited America, never, as far as anyone knows, even corresponded with anyone here. He died in 1829 in Genoa, Italy, leaving nearly all of his estate to his nephew, but with a catch. His will stated that if his nephew died without children—which he did six years later—Smithson’s estate was to be transferred to “the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.”

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When you emerge onto the National Mall from the Smithsonian subway stop, you step into one of the grandest vistas in Washington. At the far end of this stately park lies the U.S. Capitol. In the other direction rises the Washington Monument. Between them lies the core of the largest museum complex in the world, the Smithsonian Institution. A stone’s throw from where you stand is the towered, turreted, red sandstone building appropriately called the Castle, the original home and symbol of the Smithsonian. Just beyond it is the red brick Arts and Industries Building, the Institution’s second home. Across the Mall is the great domed National Museum of Natural History, next to it the boxy white National Museum of American History, and a block past the Castle the glass-fronted National Air and Space Museum. Also along the Mall are four Smithsonian art museums (two of which are underground) devoted to Asian, African, and modern art.

Overwhelming as all this may be, it only hints at the Smithsonian’s staggering scope. A few blocks from the Mall are the National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of American Art. Next to Union Station resides the National Postal Museum. Near the White House is the Renwick Gallery, a museum of crafts. The National Zoo in Rock Creek Park also belongs to the Smithsonian.

The Institution also has several storage facilities in the Washington area, two more museums in New York City, research facilities in Maryland, Virginia, Massachusetts, Florida, Arizona, and Panama. It has its own library and archives systems, publishing divisions, a traveling exhibit service, lecture and continuing education programs. Its researchers travel the world, studying nearly every aspect of nature and human endeavor. Researchers from around the world travel to the Smithsonian to study its priceless collections, which contain some 140 million objects, a number that increases daily.

But things might have turned out quite differently for Mr. Smithson’s Smithsonian. In fact, they almost did.

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If the United States accepts Smithson’s gift, Senator William Campbell Preston argued in 1836, “Every whippersnapper vagabond…might think it proper to have his name distinguished in the same way.” Fellow South Carolinian Senator John C. Calhoun felt it “beneath the dignity of the United States to accept presents from anyone.” Despite such misgivings, Congress passed a bill to accept the gift, dispatched Richard Rush to England to procure it, and then spent another eight years trying to decide what to do with it.

The problem was, no one knew exactly what Smithson wanted done with his fortune. On one hand, his will was quite specific: he wanted an institution named after himself to be established in the city of Washington. (Smithson must have had great faith or foresight. The new republic was barely a half century old when he wrote his will, and Washington was such an oppressively hot, swampy backwater that the unfortunate British diplomats stationed there received hardship pay.) But on the other hand, his will was maddeningly ambiguous. Just what, exactly, did he mean by “an institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge?”

Some people suggested the creation of a national university or various kinds of colleges or schools. Others suggested a national museum, a national scientific institute, an astronomical observatory, a national library, a lecture bureau.

The bill Congress finally passed drew upon many of these ideas. It provided for a building that was to house an art gallery, lecture hall, library, chemical and natural history laboratories, and science museum. It established the position of Secretary to head the new institution and a Board of Regents to oversee it, and largely left it up to them to interpret and carry out Smithson’s mandate. President James K. Polk signed the bill into law on August 10, 1846, and the Smithsonian Institution was born.

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The Smithsonian Castle today looks much as it did when it was completed in 1855, but its setting has changed almost beyond recognition. Back then it stood alone, like a misplaced medieval castle rising above the fields and trees of the Mall. It wouldn’t stand alone for long. The Arts and Industries Building opened next door in 1881 to house a train-load of objects donated to the Smithsonian by exhibitors at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. But the Institution soon outgrew that building as well.

Indeed, the pace of construction through the next century would never quite keep up with the Institution’s phenomenal growth, as museum after museum sprang up on the Mall and beyond. The great expeditions of exploration and discovery of the 19th and 20th centuries brought scientific and cultural specimens from around the nation and the world. Benefactors donated entire art collections to the Smithsonian. Examples of American inventiveness and scientific and technological wizardry took their place beside venerated historical icons and objects documenting the everyday lives of ordinary people. In short, just about everything under the sun found its way into the Smithsonian, earning it a reputation as “the nation’s attic.”

Today, two more major additions are being planned. In the early years of the new millenium, the National Museum of the American Indian will be added to the Mall next to Air and Space, and the Air and Space Museum’s Dulles Center, a vast storage and exhibition facility, will be built on the grounds of Washington Dulles International Airport in nearby Virginia.

All of which leaves you, the visitor, in something of a pickle. Given a few days in Washington, all you can hope to do is sample this vast smorgasbord.

No doubt you’ll stop in to visit the bones and fossils of the prehistoric creatures at the Natural History Museum, gape at the Hope Diamond, and be dazzled by the thousands of rocks, minerals, gems, and meteorites. You shouldn’t pass up the American History Museum, which contains the most diverse displays in the Smithsonian: from the bicycle you rode as a kid to a stock car driven by Richard Petty; from the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star Spangled Banner” to Archie Bunker’s chair and Dorothy’s ruby slippers; from the stump of a tree cut down by rifle fire in a Civil War battle to poignant mementos left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

No one skips the Air and Space Museum, where the entrance hall alone is enough to give you goose bumps. In a single soaring space are the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer; Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis; the rocket plane in which Chuck Yeager shattered the sound barrier; John Glenn’s Mercury capsule Friendship 7; the Apollo 11 spacecraft that carried Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins to the Moon and back; and much more.

But before you head for home, be sure to stop off at the Castle to pay your respects. For just inside the Mall entrance, in a small room to your left, lies a weathered marble crypt. It was removed from an endangered cemetery in Genoa, Italy, in 1904 and brought to the United States by Alexander Graham Bell, the famous inventor and a Smithsonian Regent. Within the crypt lies James Smithson himself, now at rest in the land he never visited in life, at the heart of the institution that bears his name.

While the circumstances of Smithson’s life suggest some possible explanations for his bequest, no one can say for sure what lay behind his generosity. Perhaps it was simply an idealistic gesture toward a young nation he may have believed was destined for greatness. But one thing is certain: if James Smithson could see the Smithsonian Institution today, he no doubt would be astonished, immensely satisfied, and proud.

David Romanowski, 1999


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