The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
In this episode: Where thy body lies: Mr. Smithson Goes to Washington
My primary goal as Wikipedian In Residence here at the Archives is to improve content on Wikipedia about the Smithsonian by utilizing the Archives’ resources. I've been able to learn a lot about the people and places that have shaped the Smithsonian into what it is today. It's one of the fun aspects of being a researcher: discovering little nuggets of factual gold that I can put into my "If I'm ever on Jeopardy" tool belt. In this series of blog posts I'd like to share some of that archival gold with you.
One of my favorite discoveries is about James Smithson. Smithson left his estate to the United States in order to found an educational institution, which eventually became the Smithsonian Institution. He never visited the United States . . . at least not while he was living. Smithson's remains are located at the Smithsonian Castle, where millions of visitors have walked past his crypt since it was placed there in 1905.
Smithson was originally buried in Genoa, Italy, where he lived and died. When the burial site in Genoa was to be relocated, one of the Board of Regents at the Smithsonian decided to take action. Who was that board member? Well, it was Alexander Graham Bell. Yes, THAT Alexander Graham Bell, the guy who invented the telephone.
Bell requested that Smithson's remains be moved to Washington, DC. His request was approved, and in 1903 Bell and his wife, Mabel Gardiner Hubbard, went to Genoa and exhumed the body. It arrived by boat in Washington on January 20. Five days later it was escorted, by the United States Calvary, to the Castle where it was placed in the Board of Regents room.
This is where it gets extra creepy: Smithson's remains sat in the Board of Regents room from January 25, 1904 until being entombed on March 6, 1905. Yes, for over ONE YEAR his remains hung out in the Board of Regents room at the Castle.
Now Smithson lies in rest at probably one of the most visited grave sites in the United States, in the chapel room in the Smithsonian Castle. This story leaves me with one question: did the ghost of Smithson also come to Washington? Which leads me to think . . . if there is ever a Smithsonian history costume party, I think I have a costume idea.
. . . in our next installment of Fun Facts I'll introduce you to the Queen of Malacology.
While you read this, I will be driving from Yosemite National Park to San Francisco, California (barring any unforeseen car troubles or navigational errors). In preparation for my trip, I decided to take a quick look into our collections to see if I could find anything interesting and related to my destination. Knowing the extent of our collections, and having happened upon a number of treasures before, I was not surprised to find nearly one hundred beautiful postcards that had been saved from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915.
The Exposition celebrated of the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914 and commemorated the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Pacific Ocean by the explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa. The Exposition also helped boost the economy and morale of the city of San Francisco, which had been devastated by an earthquake and fire in 1906. Many beautiful "palaces" and exhibition spaces covered the 635 acre fair grounds, which held displays from government agencies and departments. The Exposition illustrated "the broad function and administrative faculty of the government of the United States" and demonstrated "the nature and growth of its institutions, their adaptation to the wants of the people, and the progress of the nation in the arts of peace and war."
The Smithsonian Institution was one of the government agencies featured at the Exposition. Smithsonian displays contained examples from the Institution’s collections, publications, and many branches: pictures, publications, charts, photographs, instruments, a reproduction of the Langley experimental aeroplane, a group of taxidermy elk, four life-size ethnological models of family groups from around the world, and an immense exhibit of the stages of the "physical history of man." Samuel P. Langley, the Smithsonian’s third Secretary and the astrophysicist who designed the experimental aeroplane that was on display, was honored at the Exposition with a dedication on a statue base that read, "To commemorate science's gift of aviation to the world through Samuel Pierpont Langley, an American." The statue was something of a consolation prize, since the Wright Brothers had succeeded at flight before Langley.
When I arrive in San Francisco, there won't be many remnants of the Panama-Pacific Exposition for me to see. The Palace of Fine Arts, modeled on Roman ruins, is one of the only structures from the Exposition that survives today (it was torn down and rebuilt in its original form in 1965) as the Exploratorium, Museum of Science, Art and Human Perception. But I did find some useful advice in a brochure for the Exposition: "Do not come clad for a hot Eastern summer. Light overcoats and wraps are always in demand in the evening. From April to November umbrellas may safely be left at home." Hope you’ll get to enjoy equally nice weather today!
Learn about early color photographs from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition at the National Museum of American History’s blog.
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