To preserve the past is to save the future, and though this observation may be heard by some as a contradiction, it is the very irony of its verbiage which makes it true. Not all of the events of the past are positive and for that very reason we must not forget them. To discover, reflect, and evaluate what came before may help humanity not repeat its mistakes and crimes. And so, what better place is there than a museum to learn about what it was like “before”. In glass cases and plexi-glass displays, on walls and on pedestals are the gatherings of artifacts and relics, all of which made the world we inhabit today. Setting forth newly acquired facts in the fields of anthropology, biology, history, geology, technology, and the arts…they all are set before us with the intention of simply allowing us to ponder.
And so, I encourage you to take a walk and stroll through the corridors of any museum for surely there will be a bit of the world that will amaze you.
Today’s blog brings you the esteemed thinker: James Smithson (1765-1829) British scientist who willed his estate to the United States for the creation of what we know today as The Smithsonian Institute. Born in Paris, France, he was the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson and Elizabeth Keate Hungerford Macie, a widow of royal blood. He was named James Lewis Macie at birth however, in 1800 following the death of his mother, he took his father’s name.
Because of his birth status, he was unable to pursue careers of most nobility at that time in the military or clergy, so he turned to the sciences. He went to Pembroke College at Oxford University, and there became interested in the natural sciences. He graduated as a mineralogist and chemist, devoting his life to research. He published at least 27 papers on chemistry, geology, and mineralogy in scientific journals and proved that zinc carbonates were true carbonate minerals, not zinc oxides as popularly believed.
He inherited a great deal of land from his mother and his management brought him a great deal of money. Having never married, he left a portion of his wealth to his nephew, and “Under the arrangements of his will, the whole estate went “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.” As such the reasoning was most likely his resentment over the circumstances of his illegitimate birth. He had once written, “My name shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Northumberlands and Percys are extinct and forgotten.”
Smithson died in Genoa, Italy, on June 27, 1829, however in 1904, Smithsonian Regent Alexander Graham Bell brought Smithson’s remains to the United States to rest at the Institution he had established.
(In 1865 a fire at the Smithsonian Institute destroyed most all of Jameson’s published work)
First image: Rendering of the Castle Smithsonian Institute, 1840
Second Image: Painting of James Smithson by James Roberts, 1786