The Difficult Bequest: A History of the Smithsonian

By Sasha ArchibaldJuly 1, 2014

    The Difficult Bequest: A History of the Smithsonian

    The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects

    Left: Vials With Salk Polio Vaccine and Syringe, National Museum of American History

    The following is a feature article from the newly released LARB Quarterly Journal: Spring 2014 edition. To pick up your copy of the Journal, become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books at the $11 monthly level or order a copy at, or b&


    THE SMITHSONIAN MAY be America’s national museum, but it was not the brainchild of an American. The institution was foisted on the country by an outsider, an obscure British mineralogist who left a mysterious bequest. James Smithson never set foot in America, and there is little evidence that he befriended any Americans. He did not write approvingly (or disapprovingly) of the new democracy, and did not profess to admire American sensibilities. At the time he wrote his will, in 1826, the Smithsonian’s benefactor can best be described as a wealthy apolitical dandy, obsessed with his bloodline.

    The Americans didn’t ask for Smithson’s charity, and neither were they glad to receive it. Congress had more pride than greed, and the unexpected gift rankled: not only was it that of a reviled Brit, but a Brit who dared demand he be acknowledged in perpetuity. Moreover, it was earmarked for a purpose Americans never would have chosen themselves. Smithson’s patronage was condescending — nothing more, one Congressman surmised, than a rich man’s bid for immortality. Even John Quincy Adams, the bequest’s most passionate advocate, refused to venerate Smithson as a magnanimous patron. It was Adams who kicked up a fuss when investors were allowed to squander the funds (later replenished by the US Treasury) and Adams who protested that a national farm didn’t meet Smithson’s stipulations. In private, however, he concurred that James Smithson was probably insane.

    Insane, or perhaps just consumed by a single obsession. In addition to gifting a fortune to a country he’d never visited, Smithson’s other anomalous life decision was to change his name, at the late age of 36. He was the illegitimate child of the Duke of Northumberland, Sir Hugh Smithson, and although he never suffered for material want — his widowed mother managed to amass a fortune — his exclusion from the Northumberland dynasty irked him through adulthood. After both his parents died, Smithson abandoned his mother’s familial name, Macie, and claimed his father’s, vowing, somewhat histrionically, that Smithson would become more enduring a name than Northumberland.

    That seemed unlikely. The Northumberlands were one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in Britain, while Smithson’s solitary life was occupied mainly by the meetings of various science clubs. He collected rocks and published articles on dilettantish topics — the mineral content of a woman’s tear, and how to brew a better cup of coffee. Traveling with a manservant and a lavish silver tea service, he settled in Paris, added a pompous flourish to his new name (“Monsieur de Smithson”), and commissioned portraits of himself. By 1816, in his early 50s, Smithson had named Britain’s Royal Society as the benefactor of his trust, but the Society misstepped in deleting a few sentences from an article Smithson had submitted for publication. Always quick to perceive a slight, Smithson decided to gift his money elsewhere. He traveled to England one last time, in 1825, to make end-of-life arrangements, liquidating his property and drafting a will and testament that named his nephew as the primary benefactor. Should his nephew have no heirs (legitimate or illegitimate, Smithson pointedly wrote), the money should be used for “an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men” in America, to be known as the “Smithsonian Institution.” 

    Having tended to business, Smithson returned to Paris, and then, likely anticipating his death, decamped in high style to Genoa, bringing along his silk handkerchiefs and jewel collection, where he quietly died June 27, 1829. (There is no record of the cause of death, and exhuming Smithson’s skeleton, in 1973, yielded only that he was very petite, with many rotten teeth.) Smithson carried receipt of his final will on his person, and it was duly found and executed. His young nephew, in his early 20s, seized his inheritance and began calling himself a Baron, lodging in a fashionable Paris hotel and depleting his account at an alarming rate. And then, in just six years, he abruptly died, not yet 30 years old, childless and unmarried. Again, Smithson’s will was consulted, this time with a focus on its peculiar clause about America. It was a quirky document — Smithson had taken no legal counsel, relying only on a DIY will-writing pamphlet — that begins, most unusually, with a grandiose invocation of the author’s bloodline. But it was upheld in a court of law, such that in 1838, three years after the nephew’s death and less than a decade after Smithson’s own, several leather bags of gold sovereign coins were shipped to the former colonies.

    Discussions about what to do with the money progressed slowly and arduously. To half of Congress, the funds spelled an unwelcome expansion of federal power, and to the other half, the terms of the bequest were simply uncharted territory. America had scarce considered nation building as having any relationship to the dissemination of culture. Distrust of Smithson’s intentions surfaced again and again — during every single Congressional debate on the topic, someone suggested the money be returned to England — while the vague language of the will left endless options on the table. Proposals were floated for projects so varied as an astronomical observatory, botanical garden, teacher-training college, and a school for black children. Adams insisted that the funds be spent on nurturing homegrown intellectual culture, but his was the minority opinion; early Americans had little use for esoteric learning. A proposal for a university, for instance, was met with the demand that it be the sort of university that teaches “No Latin or Greek. No literature. Things, not words.” A philosophy lecture course was shot down on the basis that it was “calculated only to make men pleasant talkers.” The idea of funding a national library was particularly contentious. One Congressman argued that a government-funded library amounted to “legislating the minds” of its citizens, and several were convinced that the funds exceeded the number of books in the world worth buying. In every respect, an institution modeled on Europe’s citadels of high culture was seen as antithetical to the spirit of the young country. “Shall we grudge Europe her antiquarian lore, her cumbrous folios, her illuminated manuscripts, the chaff of learned dullness that cumbers her old library shelves?” thundered social reformer Robert Dale Owen. The correct answer was no. 

    After 11 years of fractious debate, Congress settled on a complicated compromise in 1846, approving the creation of an art gallery, museum, library, and chemical laboratory, to be collectively known as the Smithsonian Institution. That same year architect James Renwick Jr. began drafting plans for the Smithsonian’s first home: an ornate red stone edifice on the Mall outfitted with nine turrets. In an accidental reference to Smithson’s cheated birthright, it was dubbed the Castle.

    It wouldn’t have been a surprise had the Smithsonian withered away in the next century, but instead, it expanded in leaps and bounds. It outgrew the Castle quickly, and its next building, and the next. What began as a few sundry crates of official detritus, gifts to US officials from foreign governments and the like, would shortly become the largest collection of objects on the planet. The early Smithsonian preferred research to collecting, but was forced to accept the attic storage of the US Patent Office when it grew too crowded, inheriting such items as the rock that took the life of navigator Captain Cook, a hairbrush made by a blind boy, and the cane of Benjamin Franklin. In 1876, the collection expanded again when the contents of the US displays at the Philadelphia World’s Exposition, as well as those of other countries looking to save shipping costs, were gifted to the museum, 62 boxcars full.

    By that point, the Smithsonian had discovered that acquiring objects mollified Congress’s recurring complaints that the institution didn’t seem to do anything. Objects were tangible and concrete, and lists of objects satisfied the American emphasis on results. Thus, in the late 19th century, the Smithsonian reoriented itself around an aggressive collecting policy, funding expeditions to faraway places and amassing hordes of cultural artifacts and natural history specimens. In one seven-year span, from 1882 to 1889, the division of Arts and Industries alone acquired 3 million objects. Today the Smithsonian maintains some 400 buildings, encompassing 19 different museums and galleries, nine research facilities, and a zoo. The institution welcomes 30 million visitors a year (the New York Metropolitan reports about 5 million; the Louvre close to 10), and its collection comprises some 137 million objects. In other words, it exceeds Smithson’s most vainglorious hopes. 

    The Smithsonian usually wields its immense size to its advantage — something for everyone! — but such girth and breadth is also a symptom of institutional confusion. In truth, the Smithsonian has mimicked the trajectory of its benefactor. Over time, it has sharpened rather than shed the ambivalence that surrounded its birth. The early Congressional queries about the Smithsonian — its purpose, goal, obligation to the public, even its definition of the public — have yet to be definitively settled. These basic questions tend to rear their head in the form of endless institutional controversies over censorship, fiscal management, and the Smithsonian’s beholden relationships to deep-pocketed donors, powerful advisory groups, and Congressional whim.

    Many museums struggle with articulating their purpose, but the Smithsonian is particularly burdened by a mandate fraught with contradictions. It is expected to be all things to all people: a museum “of the people” and yet a place for elite scholarship; a museum that honors the free-minded pursuit of culture and yet doesn’t offend mainstream mores; a museum that serves the interests of Congress and is yet historically objective; a museum that selects, curates, and filters, but is all-inclusive; a museum that represents living culture and is yet a repository of objects; and finally, a museum at the vanguard of historiography and museum practice, yet governed by stakeholders with contempt for academic trends. The Smithsonian’s tortured bureaucratic maneuverings magnify the awkward fit between intellectual inquiry and American pragmatism; to some degree, the Smithsonian spells the fate of culture in mainstream America. 

    The Smithsonian reveals the contradiction and confusion at its core through one issue in particular: its institutional prerogative toward unsavory episodes of American history. Such was the nature of the famous Enola Gay controversy, in the midst of the 1990s culture wars, when curators at the National Air and Space Museum laid out an exhibition script that re-examined the necessity of dropping the atom bomb. Though the exhibition represented what was essentially historical consensus, the tone and emphasis enraged veterans. The fuselage of the Enola Gay was not to have been displayed for its superior technology or heroic mission, but in proximity to graphic life-size photos of its victims. A right-wing Congress responded to veterans’ outcries by threatening the Smithsonian’s funding, and the exhibition was canceled. 

    In fact, the Enola Gay debate repeated in essence a much earlier episode in Smithsonian history, as Robert C. Post explains in Who Owns America’s Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History (John Hopkins, 2013). In 1966, curator Peter Welsh proposed acquiring a railroad-flat slum dwelling for an exhibition about population growth, to better show the 19th-century environs of poverty. Garvan’s superior, Director of Education and Training Charles Blitzer, was delighted by the idea. “It just struck me one night that in fulfilling its responsibility a museum should show the seamier side of life,” he said, and elaborated in an interview with Science magazine, “[I]t’s the nasty side of life we’re in danger of losing today.” The comment brought widespread derision and mockery. What was the point of a museum, people scoffed, that enshrined America’s failures? And if depravity can be put on public exhibition, what was the limit? A letter to the Washington Post conflated historical atrocity with bathroom privacy, wondering if the Smithsonian should also “overlook the brothel, the abattoir, or the privy? How about a hanging, or better, a lynching?”

    As in the Enola Gay debate, the Smithsonian did not counter by explaining exactly why a museum should indeed represent a slum — or a lynching, or a nuclear bomb victim — but capitulated by demoting Blitzer, scuttling the slum plan, and hiring Daniel Boorstin as director. Boorstin was best known for his withering opinion of the counterculture movement, articulated in his famous 1968 Esquire article “The New Barbarians.” In his first speech at the helm of the Smithsonian, he vowed the Smithsonian would take no part in America’s obsession with “self-flagellation.” The institution, he promised, would showcase America’s triumphs, not her failures. 

    Boorstin’s course set the tone for the next several decades. Not only did it imply a substantial edit of American history, it precluded the possibility of institutional self-reflection. Museum theorists have persuasively argued that history museums in particular are obligated to acknowledge their complicity in historical forces, to countenance the ways in which cultural institutions corroborate inequality. The Smithsonian however, not surprisingly, shows no interest in airing dirty laundry, of which they have their fair share. Like many museums, the Smithsonian trafficked in human remains and looted sacred burial grounds, and then, packing salt to the wound, displayed their spoils as representative of nature rather than culture. Smithsonian anthropologist Aleš Hrdlička looted hundreds of graves in Kodiak Island, Alaska, in the 1930s, shipping exhumed bodies and artifacts back to DC en masse. Father of cultural anthropology Frank Boas personally acquired for the Smithsonian skeletons from Northwest Coast tribal burial grounds: “It is most unpleasant work to steal bones from a grave, but what is the use, someone has to do it,” he wrote. And bureaucratic correspondence buried in the Smithsonian’s archives reveals that after three Filipinos froze to death en route to the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 — the fair included 1,200 natives on display, transported in an unheated train car — several institutions jockeyed for the corpses, and the Smithsonian, to their satisfaction, received the Filipinos’ brains. Boorstin’s preference for simple, cheerful ditties is betrayed first by the Smithsonian’s own sordid coffers. 

    The Smithsonian’s most recent publication, History of America in 101 Objects by Richard Kurin, exemplifies another problem of the Boorstin approach: history cleansed of depravity is less consequential than the real thing. Beginning with Burgess Shale Fossils and ending with the Giant Magellan Telescope, the objects in History of America in 101 Objects are each grouped by chronological theme, illustrated with a full-page color photograph, and accompanied by an explanatory narrative. Most of the items are predictable banalities — Christopher Columbus’s portrait, the Spirit of St. Louis, Jacqueline Kennedy’s Inaugural Ball gown — and a few are pleasant surprises: a Bakelizer plastic maker, stone from an early Mormon temple, the last passenger pigeon. Nearly half are appended to a famous person, such that the table of contents reads like an all-American auction catalogue: Louis Armstrong’s Trumpet, Sitting Bull’s Drawing Book, Thomas Jefferson’s Bible, Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers, Neil Armstrong’s Space Suit, Cesar Chavez’s Union Jacket, Apple’s Macintosh Computer. 

    The accompanying narratives are occasionally robust, pleasurable reads, and the best exemplify the commonsensical inventiveness that seems particularly American. After too many arguments with his wife about whether or not she’d taken her birth control pill, David Wagner invented the circular dispenser. His prototype, made of cardboard, tape, and a snap he stripped from a child’s toy, is included here, as is a Brownie Camera used to photograph the scene of the Titanic disaster. Kodak launched the Brownie in 1900, with a design specifically geared toward women and children. The camera was cheap, lightweight, and easy to use. Young Bernice Palmer was aboard the Carpathia when it rushed to the scene of the Titanic’s wreckage and the teenager used her Brownie to shoot a rare photographic record of the disaster. When the Carpathia docked in New York, she sold the undeveloped roll of film to a news agency for $10.

    Even the most sumptuous items in History of America in 101 Objects come across as rubbed by average Americans. The 67-carat Hope Diamond, for instance, circulated through French and English nobility until it finally came into the hands of Evelyn and Ned McLean, stylish friends of president Warren Harding. It was a jewel admired the world over — that is, until the couple’s 10-year-old was hit by a car and killed, their other child committed suicide, and Ned lost his mind. The diamond was said to be cursed when it was quietly purchased by a New York City jeweler, Harry Winston, who eventually gifted the gem to the Smithsonian. It was delivered, astoundingly, in a brown cardboard box sent through the US postal service. 

    Shipping a diamond by post is one of many wonderful anecdotes about how objects arrive at the Smithsonian. Collections are more often donated than purchased, and presented in all sorts of ways. The friends of Ed Robertson, an activist and spokesperson for the rights of the disabled, drove Robertson’s jerry-rigged wheelchair to the Smithsonian after his memorial service and simply parked it in the lobby with a note. The museum’s Cold War–era fallout shelter sat partially interred in a front yard in Indiana until it became an eyesore and the property owners thought to ring up the Smithsonian in 1989. The museum’s fragments from the Berlin Wall were hand-chiseled by Reagan aide John F. W. Rogers (now a partner at Goldman Sachs), and personally delivered in a duffel bag. Muhammad Ali donated his boxing gloves, boasting that they would become “the most famous thing in this building!” Commercial airlines are obliged to send the Smithsonian air-bound roadkill, and the National Zoo’s pandas arrived via FedEx.

    Such details, however, are the highlights of what otherwise reads like a very long museum wall label. Kurin’s prose is often staid and dull, bloated with names and facts that do not coax his objects to life. Vapid generalities, such as the disheartening claim that “American creativity is evidenced by Oscar statuettes, Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, [and] an early drawing of Mickey Mouse” deflate the text, as does his self-congratulatory career reminiscences, and folksy references to his sister-in-law and cousin Gerry. Oddly, Kurin does not seem to be a lover of things. Not a collector, not an aesthete, not inclined to find hidden depths in lumps of matter — what French philosopher Gaston Bachelard once described as the “affective space hidden in the interior of things.”

    The book is overshadowed by its inspiration, Neil MacGregor’s best-selling and award-winning A History of the World in 100 Objects (British Museum, 2010). Kurin has little of MacGregor’s finesse as a writer, and neither does he seem to share MacGregor’s faith in his readers. Both authors explicitly address a general public rather than a scholarly audience — MacGregor’s texts were originally broadcast on public radio — but whereas MacGregor judges his readers capable of following an energetic cross-disciplinary pursuit, Kurin’s narratives are tame and controlled. MacGregor aptly chooses the word “prism” to describe the objects he’s selected. Indeed, a fourth-century pepper pot binds threads of social, political, and aesthetic history in a transfixing story about the role of spices in English cuisine, the caravans that carried precious goods from India to Rome to London, and the reason a precious dining accoutrement would have been buried in the English countryside. Kurin’s selections, in contrast, often foreclose broad narratives. Sitting Bull’s drawing book is not conducive to an account of the genocide of Native Americans, for instance, and Milton Glaser’s poster of Bob Dylan gives little window on the impact of the 1960s counterculture. After spending an hour with MacGregor’s book, even paperclips and coffee mugs seem to shimmer with narrative possibility. History of America in 101 Objects has the opposite effect, and despite one writer’s panache over another, it’s not immediately clear why this is so.

    A clue is in the introduction, where Kurin explains how he went about making his selections. Tasked with sifting through a collection that includes bathtubs and protractors, costumes and spacecraft, Jerry Seinfeld’s puffy shirt and Carrie Bradshaw’s laptop, Kurin turned to the public for help. The objects included in History of America in 101 Objects, he explains, are those that attract the most attention online and draw the largest crowds in the exhibition galleries. Kurin has rounded up the museum’s greatest hits. Evidently he does not consider his decades of experience, his high-ranking position as Under Secretary for Art, History, and Culture, and his authorship of the book sufficient evidence that his curatorial opinion should trump that of the average visitor. Hordes of schoolchildren squeal when they see the original Kermit the Frog puppet, so Kurin concludes that Kermit is a crucial object of American history. It is a self-effacing turn of logic, and one that puts great faith in public taste. 

    77 Space SuitNeil Armstrong’s Space Suit, National Air and Space Museum

    Internal museum politics usually trace a fault line between staff that primarily work with collections — curators, registrars, conservators — and staff who mainly interact with visitors. The former, it is argued, care little about the flesh-and-blood people who actually visit the galleries, while the latter have no respect for the warehouses of objects that make a museum a museum. Kurin is clearly of the latter camp; he moved up the ranks of the Smithsonian not as a traditional curator, but as an organizer of the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festivals, enormously popular (and in academic circles, contested) displays of “real, living culture.” These are outdoor extravaganzas — food, dance, music, crafts — in which the museum collection is minimally or not at all involved. In praising the liveliness of such festivals, Kurin wrote in 1988 that museums are too often mausoleums, more invested in fetishizing dead culture than supporting a living one. The sentiment is now common among museum staff, though it retains a heretical whiff. Kurin may very well regard himself a renegade champion of the people.

    The problem is that the Smithsonian’s visitors, like humans everywhere, gravitate toward known entities, such that they have led Kurin to select many objects with which they have an attachment prior to entering the museum. Such objects, dating from the mid- to late-20th century, exist within the spectrum of living memory. Julia Child’s kitchen, for instance — meticulously transplanted from her Boston home — evokes the experience of watching Child’s cooking show or struggling through her famous cookbook, and the mangled door of a red NYC fire engine summons a memory of 9/11. Some of these items are historically significant, and some are not, but to visitors it matters little. Their function in a museum is not so much to represent history — they are not yet historical artifacts — but to accessorize personal memory. Objects from the current milieu mirror or re-inscribe visitors’ life experiences; dwelling on the object is to dwell on one’s own life. Older objects can have the same effect through their familiarity. Canonical bits of Americana such as Thomas Edison’s light bulb or a Ku Klux Klan robe are also indelibly inscribed with meaning prior to their inclusion in the museum, such that contemplation of the object follows a well-worn path.

    Cesar Chavez’s Union Jacket, National Museum of American History

    This routinized synchrony between familiar object and familiar feeling reaches its apotheosis in Kurin’s decision to include several objects that are better described as symbols: a bald eagle, American flag, McDonald’s golden arches. Symbols are useful for their flatness, not depth, and these selections speak poorly to the nit and grit of history. Their superficiality is especially apparent in the case of the Star-Spangled Banner. The Smithsonian owns America’s first flag, sewn by Mary Pickersgill for the War of 1812, the very flag that inspired the lyrics of the national anthem. Kurin proudly explains that the flag was the beneficiary of a 58-million-dollar fundraising campaign in the 1990s, spearheaded by First Lady Hillary Clinton and sponsored by Ralph Lauren. The Star-Spangled Banner was painstakingly conserved and given a new installation. Museum visitors now view the flag by moving down a darkened hallway, passing actual artillery from the War of 1812 and charred timbers from the burning of the White House. They spy the flag around a corner, in lighting designed to simulate “the dawn’s early light.” The lyrics of  “The Star-Spangled Banner” are projected on the wall.

    But squirreled away in Kurin’s text is the hint of an alternative display for America’s first flag, a display antithetical to this expensive stagecraft. He reports that when the Star-Spangled Banner arrived at the Smithsonian, in 1907, it was a fraction of its original size. Throughout the 19th-century, veterans and high-ranking government officials clipped off bits of the flag to keep for themselves. Some swatches were small and some were large; an excised star left a hole two feet across. The flag’s preciousness was evidently not always conditional on wholeness. Partaken like a secular sacrament and manhandled like a child’s doll, America’s first flag was loved to pieces.

    A flag is a flag; even the first flag is a flag — such is the nature of a symbol. The specter of these ragged leftovers, on the other hand, is rich and mysterious. The scraps possess what the flag itself does not: a prismatic potentiality to speak of things larger and grander than themselves. Their meaning is subtle, complex, and incongruent with our understanding of the world, which is precisely the stratum of experience that Kurin’s approach omits. Kurin describes the Star-Spangled Banner installation a triumphant success: “It is as awe-inspiring as a museum experience can be.” But it is wonder, not awe, that is the lifeblood of museums. A museum too attenuated to the visitor’s taste eschews the strange and new for the familiar, and forsakes the transformative museum experience for one that is self-affirming. Courting the visitor’s interests is not always the gift it purports to be. If there is any enduring lesson to be learned from James Smithson’s bequest, it’s that good can come of the unexpected. May the Smithsonian’s eagerness to please never deprive its visitors the pleasure of being surprised.


    Sasha Archibald is a writer and curator who lives in Los Angeles.

    Photos courtesy of the Smithsonian

    LARB Contributor

    Sasha Archibald is a writer and curator who lives in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in The Believer, The New Inquiry, and Modern Painters, and she is a frequent contributor to and former editor at Cabinet


    LARB Staff Recommendations

    Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

    LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!