Innovative Planning, Level One: Researching and Presenting. The purpose of this project is to learn or review basic research methods and present a well-organized, well-researched speech on any topic.
In mid-April of this year, my husband and I took a trip to Washington, D.C. Aww, aren’t we adorable? We did lots of fun things that week, but I’m not one to let a vacation get in the way of a little education, so we spent a lot of time at museums — specifically the Smithsonian Institution.
The other handsome fellow in this photo, the big grey one in the background, is Henry, the official mascot of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. Henry is one of an estimated 154 million artifacts, works of art, and specimens in the museum’s collection, according to their website, si.edu.
Of those 154 million items, anyone care to guess what percentage is on display at any given time? 1 percent. 1 percent across 19 museums and galleries.
Where did all these things come from? What’s the point of holding onto them? To answer these questions, we need to go all the way back to the 19th century.
Say hello to James Smithson. His Encyclopaedia Britannica entry calls him “the best chemist and mineralogist in his class” at Oxford. He was marginally well-known during his lifetime, authoring 27 scientific papers; it wasn’t until his death in 1829 that his name spread round the world.
In his will, Smithson left his entire estate to the United States — on the condition that the money be used to found the “Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”
What reason did Smithson have for giving what in today’s money would be over $13 million to the government of a country he’d never even visited? We don’t really know. According to the Smithsonian’s “Our History” page on si.edu, it might have been because he was inspired by the United States’ experiment with this crazy thing called democracy, or because he just believed that scientific knowledge should be used to improve the world. Smithson never wrote down or told anyone his reasons for his bequest. But I’m certainly grateful for it.
After a couple decades of legal shenanigans, the first Smithsonian Building was completed in 1855. In 1858 it was designated as the National Museum.
In the 165-odd years since its founding, the Smithsonian has been responsible for the collection and preservation of everything from Chef Julia Child’s kitchen, every item arranged exactly as it was when Child donated it, to the Hope Diamond, a 45-carat diamond supposedly cursed to bring ill fortune and death to any who own it.
My husband and I went to just a handful of the museums, and saw a mere blip of the 1 percent of the Smithsonian’s collections on display. There was just so much to see that I literally couldn’t take it all in.
We have learned so much about ourselves and our universe from the items in the Smithsonian’s collection. And incredibly, discoveries are still being made — sometimes by accident. According to a Washington Post article, in 2016 two Smithsonian scientists wandering through the shelves stumbled across a quote “cute” skull that had been gathering dust for 50 years. On further investigation it turned out to be the skull of a hitherto undiscovered 25-million-year-old river dolphin. Imagine what other discoveries are lying in wait, buried in boxes, encased in bubble wrap, ready to share their secrets if only we would come find them.
It may seem easy to dismiss the Smithsonian Institution as a series of dusty museums, full of dead things and large placards with tiny words. But this is a place of learning, of preservation. The sum of human history is held within its museums and archives. Almost everything we have learned about humanity, history, the natural world, technology, science, and art has been catalogued by the thousands of employees who have walked its halls. I believe James Smithson would be proud.