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America's Treasure Chest

Thanks to an Englishman's will, the U.S. has the world's most visited museum. But 150 years after the Smithsonian's birth, we're still wrangling over what deserves to be preserved.

August 20, 1996|KEN RINGLE | THE WASHINGTON POST

In July 1835, the United States charge d'affaires in London received a copy of a British will making his young country a highly unusual bequest: some 100,000 pounds for the creation in Washington of an "establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."

The donor had been a wealthy aristocrat, born out of wedlock, known for compulsive gambling and dabbling in natural science. He had never been to America and appeared to have no ties there. The puzzled diplomat forwarded the will to U.S. Secretary of State John Forsyth with the suggestion that the deceased might well have been mad.

Today the fruit of James Smithson's madness, whimsy or genius--take your pick--has blossomed a thousandfold into the most extraordinary, most visited museum complex in the world.

The Smithsonian Institution encompasses insect sexologists in Panama and gamma ray astronomers in Arizona, reef biologists in Belize and wallpaper historians in New York. There are Smithsonian scientists in Massachusetts measuring the spin rates of laser-generated xenon atoms and Smithsonian ornithologists in Virginia promoting the captive breeding of the Hawaiian honeycreeper.

This is the Smithsonian's 150th year since President James K. Polk signed into law the bill that gave it birth. It is a global conglomerate with a $496-million annual budget, where some 6,700 full-time employees and 5,000 volunteers study, classify, restore and care for more than 140 million artifacts--not to mention all the animals--at dozens of sites around the world.

But most of all, Smithson's legacy enriches Washington, a city that during his lifetime was little more than a sheepwalk. Here it both husbands and showcases our national culture in 14 separate museums that in their variety and occasional tension both reflect and shape our ever-evolving image of ourselves and our arguments over what we want to be.

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Smithson, whose high-born illegitimacy embittered him and reinforced his notions of Enlightenment egalitarianism and intellectual meritocracy, would be dazzled (and on occasion probably appalled) at all the things his legacy has wrought.

But he would not be entirely surprised.

"The best blood of England flows in my veins," he wrote once. "On my father's side I am a Northumberland, on my mother's I am related to kings, but this avails me not. My name shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Northumberlands and the Percys are extinct and forgotten."

His hope was in the promise of America, though why he never came here no one knows.

His inheritance came from his mother, a descendant of Henry VII. He never saw his father and was barred not only from his father's title but also from such accepted paths to professional distinction as the church, the military or politics. He turned to science because learned men "see a lot where others see nothing," and as a member of the Royal Society published at least 27 papers on subjects in chemistry, mineralogy and botany.

But most of his life he spent traveling aimlessly around Europe. He never married, and before he died in 1829 stipulated that his fortune go to the United States should his only heir, a nephew, die childless--which happened six years later.

It is difficult now to appreciate the financial and political impact of Smithson's gift on the new American republic and its fledgling capital. The gift of $508,318.46 came when the entire yearly budget of the United States was less than $34 million. But it also came from the suspect mother country, whose soldiers had burned Washington little more than 20 years before.

Moreover, news of it arrived in the wake of Andrew Jackson's "Revolution of the Common Man," when intellectual pursuits were not high on the national agenda. Frontier swagger was.

Even after Polk signed the Smithsonian Institution into law, no one could agree on just what "the establishment for increase and diffusion of knowledge" should be. Some wanted a library, others an agricultural college. John Quincy Adams, its greatest champion, wanted an astronomical observatory. Joel Poinsett, a prominent amateur naturalist, wanted a museum of natural history.

In the end it was defined as a national museum for government collections, a laboratory, an art gallery and a library.

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Driving the Smithsonian was the 19th century explosion in scientific knowledge and America's hunger to know what lay to the west. Army expeditions, railway surveys, private adventures and geographical explorations all found the American West an immense laboratory filled with natural wonders.

Most were accompanied by Smithsonian naturalists who returned with crates of samples of every animal, vegetable or mineral they could find. Their reports inevitably helped fuel the demand for Western expansion. But as the century waned, they also drew attention to such costs of that expansion as the demise of the great buffalo herds and the vanishing riches of Native American culture.

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