Which Famous Museum’s Founder Had Never Visited The Country It Was Established In?
Answer: The Smithsonian Institution
If you, unfamiliar with the history of the venerable Smithsonian Institution, had to guess who founded it, you would most likely presume that either the U.S. government or a wealthy early American patron of the arts and sciences had underwritten the group of research facilities and museums.
In fact, the Smithsonian Institution was neither founded by the United States government (although it was built by and remains administered by it) nor was it founded by a wealthy American patron. The Smithsonian Institution was founded by the estate of British scientist James Smithson in accordance with his will.
Smithson willed his fortune to his nephew Henry James Hungerford, but per his will should Hungerford die without an heir, the money was to be transferred “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.” The bequeathment was officially accepted by the United States Government July 1836 followed by the transfer of the money in the form of 104,960 gold coins (equivalent in value today to roughly $11 million) the next month.
Why would a British scientist donate money to start a museum and research complex in a country he had never even visited? Unfortunately, Smithson’s papers and personal documents were lost in a mid-19th century fire, but even if they had been preserved, it’s possible we still wouldn’t know Smithson’s true motivation. We can, however, infer some meaning from bits of his surviving correspondence. We know that Smithson was an illegitimate child and that this status caused him not insignificant distress over his life. We also have the following quote from his correspondence in regard to the wishes outlined in his will: “My name shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Northumberlands and Percys are extinct and forgotten.” His father was Hugh Percy (surname of Smithson before marriage), the 1st Duke of Northumberland.
Perhaps Smithson saw, with significant clarity to be sure, that bequeathing his fortune to establish a large research institution in the capital of the fledgling (but rising) United States would do more to secure his name in the annals of history than any attempt at pursuing his father’s title ever would.
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