by iampunha | 8/10/2008 08:00:00 AM
Visit Washington, D.C., today and you can rally for your government or rail against it. You can go most anywhere with just a Metro card and two working legs. You can see examples of fantastic wealth and shameful (to this society) poverty.

Children sell newspapers at Metro station exits, and street vendors are never far behind. And most anywhere you walk, you know the spirit of the Founding Fathers is there many times over (especially if you're walking near a building that was a bar in the 18th century).

And who could omit the fantastic education scene? The culture available in D.C. is insane. You could spend years in D.C. and not run out of pieces of history to absorb. On a field trip in eighth grade, I got to show my classmates a painting by a (long-dead) relative.

That painting was in the National Gallery of Art, but there are many more paintings, and many more things, period, in the Smithsonian's 18 D.C. buildings.

We owe them to James Smithson, whose name should be in every American history textbook, and whose namesake institution was created by law on Aug. 10, 1846.

For Adam Walsh, whose severed head was discovered on Aug. 10, 1981.

And for all missing and/or exploited children and the families who will never even have a body to bury, far too young.

Adam Walsh was ripped from his parents' lives more than 27 years ago. To date, the location of the rest of his body is unknown perhaps to all (if those involved in his abduction and murder are dead).

James Smithson, by contrast, was never recognized by his father. He was born of a mistress.

Many historians speculate that part of the driving force behind Leonardo da Vinci's public displays of brilliance was his desire to be validated publicly. (Those historians also point out that as an illegitimate child, he'd have had to make a living on his own anyway.)

What I've read of James Smithson, a fellow illegitimate child, suggests that Smithson might well have had the same idea in mind when he arranged for a bequeathment to the U.S. should his nephew die without any heirs.

Today, nobody knows the name Hugh Smithson (or Hugh Percy, as was later the case), and to be fair, not much of anyone has heard of James Smithson.

But tell me you haven't heard of the Smithsonian.

There is much to laud Smithson for in the business world. He, like Nobel, Carnegie and Bell, was an excellent scientist and investor.

But lots of people are really smart and capitalized on their smarts for the future benefit of humanity.

Not many people translated that into 18 museums in Washington, D.C., and a legacy of scholarship that would frankly require a cataclysm to physically delete from the D.C. landscape and scholarship scene.

Even better than the magnificent gift James Smithson gave us is how the U.S. used it. Yes, museums. Yes, a fantastic amount of history, natural and otherwise.

Yes, scenes and sounds to saturate a body, mind and soul with wisdom of the past to secure the wisdom of the future.

But that's not the most important element of it to me.

I grew up half an hour from D.C., half an hour from this massive collection of the Earth's finest. It was so much a part of my life that, in my naive youth, I actually eventually tired of some parts of it (the art). The science, though, I could never get tired of. I understand science to a great degree than I understand art (which is one reason I lump artists together and explain science).

I could tire of any of it, and anyone else could tire of it, because the only requirement for admission to the Smithsonian is that you enter the building when it is open. And really, as long as you don't give the staff a reason to make you leave, you can visit open to close every day but Christmas. You could get a pretty formidable education that way. You could also beat the D.C. heat for free.

This seemed like the natural state of things to me until 1995, when a trip to France, complete with castles you have to pay (something like $7 a pop) to tour, showed me just how much better it is when information is available to everyone.

As with Johns Hopkins, few people today know much about James Smithson. Many know nothing, not even that he is the namesake for such an incredible scholastic institution.

But we know so much because of his gift to this country, and because Congress and the president saw fit to grace this country with the Smithsonian Institute in response to this portion of Smithson's will (bolding mine):

In the case of the death of my said Nephew without leaving a child or children, or the death of the child or children he may have had under the age of twenty-one years or intestate, I then bequeath the whole of my property subject to the Annuity of One Hundred pounds to John Fitall, & for the security & payment of which I mean Stock to remain in this Country, 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.



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Blogger AndrewMc on 8/10/2008 11:05 AM:

You said:

"You can see examples of fantastic wealth and shameful (to this society) poverty."

Actually, if poverty were shameful to this society we'd get rid of it. Instead we tolerate it. For many, poverty is the price you pay for wealth. Some conservatives I talk to will say "Ah well, there's always going to be poor people. Nothing you can do. They just need to get a job."