August 10, 2012 - Smithsonian Day

The National
Museum of
African Art.

Did you know that the biggest museum complex in the U.S. (and, actually, the world!) – the museum complex that offers more than 137 million items in its collections, housed in gorgeous buildings, at no admission charge – was begun with a bequest from someone that had never even stepped foot on U.S. soil?

I particularly love
the architecture of
National Museum of
the American Indian.
British scientist James Smithson died in Italy in 1829. He left his fortune to his only nephew, but his will stated that, if his nephew died without any heirs, he wanted his money to go to the United States of America “to found at Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

And, indeed, that nephew did die without heirs, in 1835, and President Andrew Jackson sent an agent to England to bring back the fortune—about half a million dollars. Unfortunately, Congress put the money in state bonds that defaulted. Former president John Quincy Adams talked long and hard but finally convinced Congress to replace the money and create an institute of science and learning, as Smithson requested.

On this date in 1846, the act creating the Smithsonian Institution was signed into law by President James Polk.

The best thing to do today is to actually go to Washington, D.C., and tour a museum or two. But most of us can't do that. Next best thing:

Also on this date:

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