History

John Smithson established the Smithsonian 164 years ago on August 10th 1846. The castle was built in 1847-1855.   The archetect/designer was James Renwick Jr whowas also in control of the St. Patrick's Cathral in New York.  Joseph Henry, the secratary for the Smithsoinan and his family lived in the East Wing of the Castle.  Featured Areas: Children's Room, The Commons, and Schermer Hall                            ( Joseph Henry)  (James Smithson)
 Permanent
First Floor
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Children's Room: (First Floor, South Entrance, Independence Avenue)
The Children's Room -- with the theme "Knowledge Begins in Wonder" -- was installed in the south tower of the Castle in 1901 and featured natural history exhibitions for children. The original decorative scheme by designer Grace Lincoln Temple was restored in the mid-1980s.

The Commons: (First Floor, West Wing)
The Commons, in the 19th-century Gothic Revival architectural style, features a soaring, groin-vaulted ceiling, elaborate corbels, a ribbed-vaulted apse, and a rose window on the south wall. Encircling the room are 28 walnut exhibit cases built in 1871 and refurbished in July 2004 with selected objects representing the Smithsonian's collections (for details, see permanent exhibition The Smithsonian Institution: America's Treasure Chest). The room served as a dining facility for many years, closing in June 2004.

Schermer Hall: (First Floor, West Wing)
Schermer Hall, named for Smithsonian donors Lloyd G. and Betty A. Schermer, is in the Romanesque Revival style with clerestory windows, rounded arches, and a barrel-vaulted ceiling. Furnishings from the Castle Collection include a pair of Rococo Revival gilded mirrors that belonged to Simon Cameron, Secretary of War (1860-1862) under President Lincoln; a pair of Renaissance Revival armchairs (c. 1860) that belonged to Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War (1862-1867) under Presidents Lincoln and Grant; and Georgian Revival tables (c. 1910) in mahogany and verdi marble with classically carved motifs, including anthemion and acanthus leaves and guilloche (running dog) borders. Also in this room is a small panel display on the history of the west wing; for details, see the permanent display The West Wing: A Chronology.

Great Hall: See Smithsonian Information Center.
Smithson's Crypt: See separate listing.

Smithson's Crypt

Permanent
1st Floor, North Entrance (Jefferson Drive)

Who was James Smithson?

The final resting place of the Institution's benefactor, James Smithson (1765-1829), is a small chapel-like room located at the north entrance to the Castle. Exhibit cases contain a few of Smithson's personal effects, as well as the Smithsonian's official Mace and Badge of Office. A panel explains how Smithson's remains came to the United States in 1904 and the Smithsonian's plans to build a memorial to him.

Smithson, the illegitimate child of a wealthy Englishman, had traveled much during his life, but had never once set foot on American soil. Why, then, would he decide to give the entirety of his sizable estate—which totaled half a million dollars, or 1/66 of the United States’ entire federal budget at the time—to a country that was foreign to him?

What was it about the United States, or about Smithson’s life or background that made him want to give everything he had to the foundation of this institution?

Smithson came of age in a time of tremendous excitement around science, and also a belief in usefulness, this idea that you could make the world a better place, and that man was perfectible. He believed very strongly that scientists were benefactors of all mankind. It is interesting to look at what the United States was at that time, and especially to this person who had never actually seen it. Many of the statesmen who were representing the United States in the beginning, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were scientists as well, and they were also founders of philosophical societies.

There are also a lot of things going on with Smithson personally, such as his illegitimacy, and his feeling disenfranchised or not fully accepted by this society that was very based on status and hierarchy and who your family was. He sees, across the ocean, this country that is trying to establish a new kind of government based on law and science, where what you contribute is how you’re valued. It’s supposedly a meritocracy, which is very much what science was at that time as well.

How did Smithson conceive of “knowledge” originally, and how does it compare to the Smithsonian’s definition of knowledge today?

Smithson felt that all knowledge was useful, and he felt that everybody could make a contribution. It’s curious—there were institutions that used similar language in their founding mandates, like the Royal Institution of Great Britain, of which Smithson was a founding member. They were also about the promotion of knowledge, but they were much about doing laboratory work and publishing papers, and Smithson might have had that as a model for what his Smithsonian should be. He was very interested in posterity as well, so I think he’d be delighted that the Smithsonian Institution is as huge and well-known as it is today.

What are some of the primary mysteries behind Smithson and his life?

He traveled a lot, and always seems to have stayed kind of portable. He always rented, never actually owned, and his library, which is one of the only things we actually have about him is interesting because it’s a working library. At that time when you bought your books, they weren’t bound, they just had a paper wrapper so that you could take them to the book binder and have them done with the leather and the design that you wanted. Smithson never did that. So he had this library that’s not something you wanted to show off. It’s also quite small compared to what it could’ve been, given his wealth, and certain books that you might expect to be in there are not.

Smithson had 8,000 to 10,000 minerals. That was here at the Smithsonian and we lost it in the fire of 1865. But if he collected other objects or paintings or things like that, there’s no evidence of it. So it seems curious for a man of his station and the way he wanted to carry himself that he didn’t do some of the things that we would expect him to do.

 
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