Unusual Tourist Sites: The Smithsonian Institute Washington, D.C. Part 1

About the unusual tourist site The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. how and how founded it, history of America's attic.

The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Mystery on the Mall . . . The millions of visitors to the Smithsonian Institution on the Mall in Washington, D.C., walk into an unsolved mystery. James Smithson, an Englishman who was born in France, who never saw the U.S. and never even corresponded with anyone in this country, left a fortune to found an American establishment to be known as the Smithsonian Institution "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."

No one has yet discovered the reasons for his strange action. When Smithson was born in 1765 he was christened James Lewis Macie. His mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Macie, had been widowed before the boy was born. His real father, however, was Hugh Smithson, a wealthy Briton who was later knighted as the Duke of Northumberland and who legally changed his name to Hugh Percy.

While in college, young Macie signed papers "James Smithson" and thereafter kept that name. His estate (about $500,000) was bequeathed to the U.S. and was accepted after 8 years of congressional wrangling. The Institution was founded in 1846, and today some 20 million or more people wander through its buildings every year. Smithson's body was brought to the U.S. in 1904 and rests in the castlelike red brick Smithsonian Building.

Once called "America's Attic," the modern Smithsonian is crammed with treasures and trifles, oddities, relics, and a wealth of artistic, scientific, and historical material. Smithsonian officials call the Institution "the Trustee of America's Heritage."

The Wright Brothers' 1st airplane shares space with Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. The original Star-Spangled Banner that waved above Fort McHenry in 1814, now tattered and torn, hangs proudly "o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave." Rockets and spacecraft are in stark contrast with the Duryea horseless carriage of 1893-1894 and a Model T Ford.

Visitors to the Museum of History and Technology smile at a statue of George Washington created by Horatio Greenough, the 1st sculpture ever commissioned by Congress, but when it was unveiled in 1841 the whole town was shocked. The statue shows a seated Washington, naked to the waist and draped in a toga. Citizens called the sculpture "the naked Washington" and complained that our 1st President looked too much like a Roman Emperor. But the figure remains.

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