There are many national treasures in the United States, a number of them gifts from nature. The Grand Canyon is a breathtaking spectacle. The mighty redwood forests are haunting. The Rocky Mountains are the marrow of the country. We sometimes forget our manmade creations that seem to pale in comparison to the ancient edifices and wonders that lie in other parts of the world, but one that stands out as a true gift is the system of Smithsonian museums in Washington D.C. that span so many facets of human enterprise. Surprisingly the beginnings of that incredible institution came from a man who had never even been to the United States.
James Smithson was a wealthy Brit who possessed an intense curiosity about science and the world. From a young age he dabbled in research and his studies and findings enabled him to accumulate a rather tidy sum of money for the time. When he died his will stipulated that his fortune would go to his nephew, but if that nephew died without heirs then it would revert 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.” As fate would have it Smithson’s nephew indeed died without children and so a plan was devised to send the five hundred thousand dollar estate to the U.S.
After a flurry of debate over how best to spend the windfall Congress decided to create “a museum, a library, and a program of research, publication, and collection in the sciences, arts, and history.” In August of 1846, President Polk signed the bill into law and of course the rest is history. Today there are nineteen different museums in the Smithsonian family and countless visitors from around the world enjoy the exhibits and benefit from the research that happens all because of the largesse of one man who never actually explained why he had chosen to donate his wealth to the fledgling country. This generous act has indeed increased and diffused knowledge to countless ordinary people over the ensuing decades and has become one of the most popular destinations in the world.
I suspect that during his time Mr. Smithson saw the United States as a rather wild place with little history of which it might boast. The country was still struggling to define itself and to keep afloat in the early nineteenth century. Much of the world sat back waiting for the whole experiment that had been unleashed by the Founding Fathers to implode. It was easy to see that there were still many problems that needed addressing when Mr. Smithson died in 1829. He must have been considered rather eccentric to even consider leaving his fortune to a nation that had yet to prove itself, but in retrospect it was a brilliant idea. What better way to insure progress than to promote education? It is indeed in opening our minds to the knowledge that has come before us and the ideas of the future that we as people become stronger. The foundation of success lies in learning and uncovering truths. The Smithsonian Institution has dedicated itself to being a repository of information that is open to all people.
We are presently engaged in heated discussions about how to move forward in a world that is very different than the one that James Smithson inhabited, and yet his essential understanding of the importance of knowledge holds the key to unlocking our full potential. If the Smithsonian Museums that grace Washington D. C. have taught us anything it is that the power of mankind is unleashed at its best when we work together as people to provide win/win situations for all parties.
What worries me most about the environment that I observe today is that people are taking sides and demanding that their points of view be accepted without quarter. In other words there is an atmosphere of extreme partisanship that virtually insures that half of the population will be angry one way or another. Little effort is being made to consider alternatives or to engage in healthy research and discussion of issues. Much of the population is ignoring the knowledge that we have accumulated over time that might help in unravelling the challenges that we face. I find that few people even possess a fundamental understanding of our Constitution and why it was created the way it was. Even our presidents are sometimes guilty of believing that they have powers that do not belong to that branch of government. We seem to promote freedom of speech only as long as it aligns with our way of thinking and the entire political spectrum is quite guilty of intellectual laziness.
The Smithsonian Institution and all for which it stands should be more than just a vacation destination for Americans. It is not Disneyland, but rather a treasure trove of information and ideas about which we should be eager to learn and discuss while eschewing our preconceived notions. Ours is supposed to be a nation of “we, the people” not “you people” and yet so often I hear taunts that divide us into camps as though there is no possibility of ever coming together.
Propaganda is bombarding us every minute of every day. It is up to each of us to take the time to unravel fact from fiction, lies from truth. It should not be them against us, but rather all of us searching together for the truths that are evident and that may be found in the unfolding history of mankind much of which is housed in the Smithsonian Institution. Our goals should not be to defeat those who think differently from ourselves but to find ways of managing our beautiful diversity so that everyone feels a sense of belonging and power. Our journey to such ideals should begin with educating ourselves and our children.
As we begin yet another school year we would be wise to be inspired by James Smithson’s generosity and wisdom. Somehow he understood that all nations need to learn from the knowledge that mankind has assembled over time. It is in using our rationality that we better the lives of everyone and those who have come before us have demonstrated time and again that struggles for power are not the answer. All of the lessons are right in front of our eyes. It’s time that we buckle down and take them to heart.