August 10

The Smithsonian Institute, the epitome and apogee of American intellectual culture, established, in response to a bequest by James Smithson, today in 

What follows below is adapted from my novel "A Journey In Time":

Although his will established the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, James Smithson was in fact an Englishman, born in Paris in 1765, and died in Genoa, on June 27th, 1829.

His father was Hugh Smithson Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland – one of the great English families, founded by William de Percy who came to England with the Conqueror in 1066, and including Baron Richard, who was a principal figure in the Magna Carta; Henry, who fought Robert the Bruce; the famous Harry Hotspur lionised by Shakespeare; Sir Thomas who put Henry Bolingbroke upon the throne after calumniating the good and honest Richard II for a sodomite; and on, and on, through Anne Boleyn's lover and the Percy who financed the Gunpowder Plot: indeed, a history of Europe told through the lives of the Percy family would leave out very little - and his mother Elizabeth Keate Macie, a lineal descendant of that other usurper of a falsely calumniated king, Henry VII. Smithson was educated at the University of Oxford, where he was said to have been the best chemist and mineralogist in his class. During his life he eventually published twenty-seven scientific papers, on subjects as diverse as mineralogy, chemistry and geology, and including such abstruse and esoteric interests as the chemical content of a lady's teardrop, the crystalline form of ice, and an improved method for making coffee. On the recommendation of Henry Cavendish and others, he was admitted to the Royal Society at the age of only twenty-two. The mineral Smithsonite, a carbonate of zinc, was named for him, after he proved that zinc was not an oxide, as had always been believed, but in fact a true carbonate material.

Like his own parents, Smithson never married, but spent much of his life in Europe, where he came to know the leading scientists. His substantial fortune, inherited chiefly through his mother's family, he left to a nephew, Henry James Hungerford, who died without issue. Under the terms of Smithson's will, the entire 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."

Why America? And why specifically Washington? Resentment over his illegitimate birth must have been one factor, but only in his refusal to live in, or leave his bequest to, that nation of hypocrites the British. But there has surely to be more to it than this. He was an Enlightened scientist, born in Paris four years before the revolution, who lived through the epoch of Napoleon and the Romantic movement, the era of Byron and Shelley, of Hugo and… and especially Napoleon. Where else was Libert√©, Egalit√© and Fraternit√© being dreamed than in America? Where else was Liberty Bell being chimed into law, except in Washington DC? Certainly not in stuffy Oxford or the panelled bar-rooms of the Royal Academy where personal wealth and influence, personal status and power, meant far more than contributing to the advancement of knowledge – the great hero of the day, Lord Admiral Nelson, owed every post he ever held, from his first and juniorest to his elevation to the admiralty, not to ability but to family connections. Aghast at the swindle of nepotism, Smithson had written, "My name shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Northumberlands and Percys are extinct and forgotten." Another Icarene flight of fancy, but one which he was able to see fulfilled. In 1904 Smithson's remains were brought to the United States under an escort that included Alexander Graham Bell and were interred in the original Smithsonian building, an extraordinary fairy-tale of a folly, easily mistakeable for a Methodist chapel, except that the towers came from ruined Norman castles and the turrets from the main mosque in Damascus, circus-tents appended.

In fact, when the bequest was first made, it was held by several members of Congress, including John Caldwell Calhoun - one of the two famous "warhawks" who preferred war to the "putrescent pool of ignominious peace" and convinced the House of Representatives to declare war on Great Britain on June 27th 1812 - that the federal government had no power to accept such a gift, though their reasons for wishing to decline it are conundrums at the very least: perhaps an unwillingness to see so staunchly aristocratic an English family enshrined in the independent colonies, and with a hold on its intellectual and its cultural life at that. In spite of them it was finally secured, largely through the efforts of John Quincy Adams, America's 6th President and son of John Adams, its 2nd, who died, by curious coincidence, on the same day and just a few hours later than Thomas Jefferson, who succeeded him as America's 3rd President, and by even more curious coincidence, on July 4th, American Independence Day, itself. As to the Smithsonian Institute, it was finally established by congressional act at Washington DC on the anniversary of Smithson's deathdate, June 27th 1846. 

The bureaus under the administration of the Smithsonian Institution include the Archives of American Art, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, the Freer Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the International Exchange Service, the John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Armed Forces Museum Advisory Board, the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of American Art, the National Museum of History and Technology, the National Museum of Natural History, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Zoological Park, the Radiation Biology Laboratory, the Science Information Exchange, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery for Asian and Middle Eastern art, the National Museum of African Art, and the National Museum of the American Indian. 

On several pages of this Book of Days, in other writings too, I have scathed America for all manner of its vices, flaws and failings. But then there are these little pockets, in Asheville North Carolina, on Manattan Island, in both Taliesins, in Millennium Park in Chicago, in Yerba Buena in San Francisco, in Bilbao Park in San Diego - findable, if you are willing to go in search of them. I spent a year going in search of the Smithsonian, weekend after weekend of my stay in Baltimore, and what is most extraordinary is that they invite you in to almost all of it for free. Socialised Culture, in the United States of AynRandism! 

And was it pure coincidence, that the Louvre, palace of the kings for many centuries, was opened as a people's museum and art gallery, on this same day, in 1793?

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