Today Must Be Museum Creation Day
After a decade of debate about how best to spend a bequest left to America from an obscure English scientist, President James K. Polk signs the Smithsonian Institution Act into law.
In 1829, James Smithson died in Italy, leaving behind a will with a peculiar footnote. In the event that his only nephew died without any heirs, Smithson decreed that the whole of his estate would go 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.” Smithson’s curious bequest to a country that he had never visited aroused significant attention on both sides of the Atlantic.
Smithson had been a fellow of the venerable Royal Society of London from the age of 22, publishing numerous scientific papers on mineral composition, geology, and chemistry. In 1802, he overturned popular scientific opinion by proving that zinc carbonates were true carbonate minerals, and one type of zinc carbonate was later named smithsonite in his honor.
Six years after his death, his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, indeed died without children, and on July 1, 1836, the U.S. Congress authorized acceptance of Smithson’s gift. President Andrew Jackson sent diplomat Richard Rush to England to negotiate for transfer of the funds, and two years later Rush set sail for home with 11 boxes containing a total of 104,960 gold sovereigns, 8 shillings, and 7 pence, as well as Smithson’s mineral collection, library, scientific notes, and personal effects. After the gold was melted down, it amounted to a fortune worth well over $500,000. After considering a series of recommendations, including the creation of a national university, a public library, or an astronomical observatory, Congress agreed that the bequest would support the creation of a museum, a library, and a program of research, publication, and collection in the sciences, arts, and history. On August 10, 1846, the act establishing the Smithsonian Institution was signed into law by President James K. Polk.
Today, the Smithsonian is composed of 19 museums and galleries including the recently announced National Museum of African American History and Culture, nine research facilities throughout the United States and the world, and the national zoo. Besides the original Smithsonian Institution Building, popularly known as the “Castle,” visitors to Washington, D.C., tour the National Museum of Natural History, which houses the natural science collections, the National Zoological Park, and the National Portrait Gallery. The National Museum of American History houses the original Star-Spangled Banner and other artifacts of U.S. history. The National Air and Space Museum has the distinction of being the most visited museum in the world, exhibiting such marvels of aviation and space history as the Wright brothers’ plane and Freedom 7, the space capsule that took the first American into space. John Smithson, the Smithsonian Institution’s great benefactor, is interred in a tomb in the Smithsonian Building.
After more than two centuries as a royal palace, the Louvre is opened as a public museum in Paris by the French revolutionary government. Today, the Louvre’s collection is one of the richest in the world, with artwork and artifacts representative of 11,000 years of human civilization and culture.
The Louvre palace was begun by King Francis I in 1546 on the site of a 12th-century fortress built by King Philip II. Francis was a great art collector, and the Louvre was to serve as his royal residence. The work, which was supervised by the architect Pierre Lescot, continued after Francis’ death and into the reigns of kings Henry II and Charles IX. Almost every subsequent French monarch extended the Louvre and its grounds, and major additions were made by Louis XIII and Louis XIV in the 17th century. Both of these kings also greatly expanded the crown’s art holdings, and Louis XIV acquired the art collection of Charles I of England after his execution in the English Civil War. In 1682, Louis XIV moved his court to Versailles, and the Louvre ceased to be the main royal residence.
In the spirit of the Enlightenment, many in France began calling for the public display of the royal collections. Denis Diderot, the French writer and philosopher, was among the first to propose a national art museum for the public. Although King Louis XV temporarily displayed a selection of paintings at the Luxembourg Palace in 1750, it was not until the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 that real progress was made in establishing a permanent museum. On August 10, 1793, the revolutionary government opened the Musée Central des Arts in the Grande Galerie of the Louvre.
The collection at the Louvre grew rapidly, and the French army seized art and archaeological items from territory and nations conquered in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. Much of this plundered art was returned after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, but the Louvre’s current Egyptian antiquities collections and other departments owe much to Napoleon’s conquests. Two new wings were added in the 19th century, and the multi-building Louvre complex was completed in 1857, during the reign of Napoleon III.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Grand Louvre, as the museum is officially known, underwent major remodeling. Modern museum amenities were added and thousands of square meters of new exhibition space were opened. The Chinese American architect I.M. Pei built a steel-and-glass pyramid in the center of the Napoleon courtyard. Traditionalists called it an outrage. In 1993, on the 200th anniversary of the museum, a rebuilt wing formerly occupied by the French ministry of finance was opened to the public. It was the first time that the entire Louvre was devoted to museum purposes.
- Posted in: Book Geek Humor & Reflections
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