To the society of ancient Greece, a Mouseion was a place that was used for the purpose of meditating in silence. Our Latin word "Museum" was certainly derived from that original Greek word, and the definition has come to mean much more. Most museums are still quiet places, but are now devoted to the procurement, care, study and display of artifacts, art objects, and other objects of interest or value. Through the efforts of museums, cultural, historical, scientific, and artistic items of importance are made available for the public to study and enjoy.
Now, let us follow an incredible story that began in France almost 250 years ago. Sometime during the year 1765, James Lewis Macie was born in Paris under a veil of secrecy, for he was the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, who was the Duke of Northumberland, and his royal acquaintance, Elizabeth Hungerford Macie.
At a young age, James would aspire to become a scientist and would in fact go on to earn a Masters degree from Pembroke College in Oxford, England. As a lifelong student of science, his primary interests were in the fields of chemistry, geology and mineralogy.
Fully aware of his heritage, James would eventually become a citizen of England and formally change his last name to Smithson. As time, and many of his noble relatives passed on, he would come to inherit a fortune. As a result of this wealth, he was able to live a comfortable nomadic life style, maintaining homes in several European countries. He was a true academic and this was the way of life that enabled him to mingle with the great minds of the time.
James Smithson's closest friends were thinkers, artists and scientists who were also dedicated to improving the human condition. None had ever traveled to America, but all were interested in the new social experiment called the United States. As a matter of fact, the more that they discussed the long-term possibilities of this fledgling democracy, the more James thought about how his money might help.
Some say that he may have been disillusioned with his family and the government of England, others argue that he simply wanted to help a new country but regardless of the motive, he was to give us an incredible gift.
As the grand design of life would have it, James Smithson, who died in 1829, was never married and had no heirs. So, this otherwise obscure 18th century scientist decided to donate his entire fortune to the United States of America. The money ($508,000) was to be used for building an educational museum for the increase and diffusion of knowledge. His will also stipulated that the new national museum be called the Smithsonian, and that it be located in Washington, D.C.
In 1835 President Andrew Jackson presented James Smithson's bequest to Congress. After almost nine years of debate, a Congressional act was finally signed by President James Polk on Aug. 10, 1846 thereby establishing the Smithsonian Institute.
Since that initial founding day, the Smithsonian National Museum and research system has become the largest in the world. This multifaceted organization now includes an impressive list of 19 separate museums, the National Zoo, and 10 research centers. James Smithson's single act of kindness to our country has had an astounding impact on the arts, sciences and humanities.
The Smithsonian collections now include more than 140 million items. Recently, combined visitation has been in excess of 35 million a year all are admitted without charge.
Details can be found at theSmithsonian Institution website, SI.EDU.