Thursday, October 2, 2014
October 2, 2014: American Collectors: The Smithsonian
[There are few practices more AmericanStudies, but also more complex, than that of collecting historical, cultural, and artistic treasures and memorabilia. This week I’ll highlight and analyze five such collections and the collectors who assembled them. Please share collections and museums of interest to you for a collected weekend post!]
On three evocative moments in the history of America’s national collection.
The Smithsonian Institution, the self-proclaimed “world’s largest musem and research complex,” was created by both the generosity and the caprice of an Englishman. When scientist James Smithson died in 1829 he left most of his estate to his nephew Henry James Hungerford; but in Smithson’s will, if Hungerford died childless (which he did only six years later) that estate would pass to the U.S. “to found … an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” I suppose many museums begin with the actions and choices of an individual, but I think in this case it would do Americans good to recognize that one of our national treasures woud likely not exist if there had been a little Hungerford or two running around. We’ve been transnationally influenced and dependent throughout our history, and we owe the rest of the world—including those Brits—much more than we like to admit.
Smithson’s bequest didn’t exactly specify how the institution was to increase and diffuse knowledge, but in the years leading up to and after the Smithsonian’s 1846 establishment collecting became the principal mechanism through which it was developed. One particularly productive source of those early collections was the Navy’s United States Exploring Expedition, which circumnavigated the globe under commanding officers Thomas ap Catesby Jones and Charles Wilkes (among others) between 1838 and 1842. The expedition collected numerous animal and plant specimens, ethnographic artifacts, and other resources, most of which made their way back to Washington and became part of the Smithsonian’s founding collections. In an era when the U.S. was beginning to venture into imperialistic international endeavors, the expedition, and through it the Smithsonian, offered a far different way to think about our engagement with the world.
Obviously and unfortunately that didn’t stop our imperialistic endeavors, but the Smithsonian has likewise continued to amass and expand its collections and museums over the century and a half since those origin points. There have been plenty of evocative moments along the way, but I would highlight a very recent one: June 21, 2013, when, in honor of Go Skateboarding Day, the National Museum of American History mounted an extensive exhibition on and demonstration of the sport, featuring Tony Hawk’s first skateboard and numerous other submissions, items, and professional skateboarders. I’m sure there were criticisms that such an exhibition was beneath the Smithsonian’s standards or the like—but the truth is that the collection has been both haphazard and wonderfully all-encompassing from the start; and as anyone who’s had the chance to visit any of the institution’s (free!) museums can attest, the results have been American in the very best sense.
Last collector tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Collections you'd highlight?