Washington DC – The Smithsonian

IN 1828 an English gentleman named James Smithson died at Genoa, leaving an estate valued at half a million dollars. By his will the estate passed to a relative for life, and afterward descended ” To the United States of America to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” In 1838 this bequest, amounting to the sum of $515,169, was transferred to the United States by the Chancery Court of England. The agent of the government in obtaining the money wrote in his report of Smithson that ” he was a natural son of Hugh, first Duke of Northumberland, his mother being of an ancient family in Wiltshire of the name of Hungerford. He was born in London, and was educated at Oxford, where he took an honorary degree in 1786. He took the name of James Lewis Macie until a few years after he left the university, when he changed it to Smithson. He does not appear to have had any fixed home, living in lodgings when in London, and occasionally, a year or two at a time, in the cities on the continent—Paris, Berlin, Florence, and Genoa, at which last place he died. The ample provision made for him by the Duke of Northumberland, with retired and simple habits, enabled him to accumulate the fortune which passed to the United States. He interested himself little in questions of government, being devoted to science and chiefly to chemistry.”

Gentlemen of learning and distinction in the United States were invited by the government to submit their views as to the best method of applying the Smithson bequest, and many views were submitted. It was suggested that a national university should be established, to occupy the place between a college and a professional school, with public lectures on classical and oriental languages, and the principal sciences. It was urged that the money should be devoted to teaching the principles of the useful arts, to the founding of a great botanical garden, to the creating of a national free library of reference ; and, in fact, innumerable views were presented, all set forth with strong arguments. Finally it was decided to make the Smithsonian Institution” a general scientific establishment, which should be devoted to investigations and researches in all branches of knowledge ; which should employ eminent men to study special subjects, and publish the results to the world.

In 1846 the institution was organized by act of Congress, the management of its affairs being placed in the hands of a Board of Regents, composed of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, members of the Senate and House of Representatives, and sundry private citizens. The President of the United States and his Cabinet were constituted members ex-officio of the institution. A secretary, to have the active management, was to be chosen by the regents.

The corner-stone of the building was laid by President Polk, with Masonic rites, on the 1st of May, 1847, and the building was completed in 1856, at a cost of $450,000, the accumulated interest on the bequest being sufficient to pay for its erection. Prof. Joseph Henry, of Princeton College, was chosen to be secretary, and for many years directed the institution most successfully, retaining the position until his death. In 1880 Congress appropriated $15,000 for the erection of a bronze statue of Professor Henry, and on April 1883, this statue, the work of William W. Story, was publicly unveiled with appropriate ceremony. It stands northwest of the Smithsonian Building, in a prominent position on the grounds.

The building is located on that part of the Mall, between Seventh and Twelfth streets, known as “the Smithsonian Grounds,” an area of fifty-two acres, finely laid out as a public park, with broad drives and footways, handsome lawns, and groves of luxuriant trees. An-drew J. Downing, the distinguished landscape gardener and horticulturist, designed and partially laid out the grounds, but he died in 1852, before the work was completed. A monumental vase of great beauty, which stands in the easterly portion of the grounds, was erected to his memory by the American Pomological Society. The building is of red sandstone from quarries near Washington, on the upper Potomac, and the style of architecture is that variously de-scribed as the Norman, the Lombard, and the Byzantine, which prevailed throughout southern Europe toward the close of the twelfth century. There are nine towers of different forms and heights. The front extends four hundred and twenty-six feet, the centre building being fifty by two hundred feet, and there are two wings, the east one having a vestibule and porch attached, and the west one a semicircular projection. It was designed by James Renwick, Jr., and was the first unecclesiastical edifice of this architectural order ever erected in the country. The interior is substantially constructed. The officials and employes of the institution have apartments in the wings, and the centre structure is mainly used for the exhibition of objects of natural history.

The institution expends about $70,000 a year in various scientific investigations conducted by its force of scientists, and publishes a series of volumes, entitled the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, which are sent to the principal scientific societies of the world in exchange for their publications. It carries on an extensive scientific correspondence, and all letters that are received making inquiries relative to certain branches of knowledge are carefully answered.

It publishes accounts of the latest discoveries in science, and in many ways intelligently labors for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

In 1879 ” an annex to the Smithsonian Institution ” was erected by the government, and denominated ” The National Museum.” Originally intended to contain the splendid exhibits made by foreign governments at the Centennial Exhibition, which were presented to the United States, its scope has been enlarged, so that now it is the general depository of all the geological and industrial collections of the government, and is rapidly becoming one of the greatest and most attractive museums in the world. In the course of a few years it will contain vast collections of the products of industry, ancient and modern, the useful, the ornamental, and the marvelous ; and, it may be said, representations of nearly everything of importance that prodigal nature furnishes for man’s use and benefit.

The building stands directly east of the Smithsonian Institution, and covers nearly two and one-half acres. It is a fine example of the modern Romanesque order of architecture, and has a certain quaint beauty, with its numerous peaked towers, high central dome, and pavilions. It is constructed of bricks laid in black mortar, with blue and buff bricks set in the cornices, which produce a very pleasing effect. There are seventeen spacious exhibition halls within the building, and also one hundred and thirty-five rooms for other purposes. The floors are constructed of tiles laid in artistic forms, the cases are all of mahogany, and the decorations are elegant. In the offices and work-shops in various sections may be found men of extensive reputation in the world of science, with numerous assistants, prosecuting researches and preparing material to increase the treasures of the museum. The secretary of the Smithsonian Institution is the director, and there are an assistant director, eleven curators, and a large force of employes. Congress annually makes an appropriation for the museum.

Already the collections are very interesting and instructive to all who wander through the lofty and beautiful exhibition halls. The staple products of the world are shown in their varying qualities, and the articles manufactured from them are thoroughly represented. Much that is curious in American and foreign growth and manufacture — much that is specially attractive — can be found in an hour’s inspection, and days can be spent in the profitable study of the thousands of articles displayed. The ethnological exhibit is particularly comprehensive and valuable. The fame of these collections is rapidly extending over the country, and students of natural history, and of special industrial subjects, are beginning to learn that the government has provided in the most liberal manner in this museum a remarkable school wherein object-lessons of the utmost practical value can be obtained gratuitously.