What if the Smithsonian Castle had burned all the way to the ground when flames surrounded the building in 1865? One of the most distinctive – and wonderfully odd, really, with its mismatched turrets and cloister-influenced nooks and crannies – and immediately recognizable buildings in all of Washington might have ceased to exist.
What if James Smithson’s papers hadn’t been lost in that fire? We might know, definitively and unfiltered by the lens of history, why he chose America – a place he had never been – as the site for an institute dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge.
What if Smithson’s heir, his nephew, had had of-age heirs himself? As historian Pamela Henson of the Smithsonian Institution Archives recently recounted during a rare behind-the-scenes Castle tour, according to Smithson’s will, America was only to receive his fortune if his heir left none of his own.
What if Congress hadn’t accepted the bequest? (Indeed, as strange as that may sound, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion!)
What if Smithson hadn’t had such a curious mind? A less inquisitive one may have inspired the increase and diffusion of more narrowly focused knowledge than the 19 museums/galleries + Zoo + research facilities collage we ended up with. (As Henson noted, Smithson’s publications included “An Improved Method of Making Coffee,” Thomson’s Annals of Philosophy, 1823, as well as, “A few Facts relative to the Coloring Matters of some Vegetables,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1817. And don’t forget, “A Method of Fixing Crayon Colors,” Thomson’s Annals of Philosophy, 1825).
What if Smithson – conceived out of wedlock and named James Lewis Macie in a time and culture where surname was station and station was everything – hadn’t petitioned, successfully, to take his father’s name once senior had died? We might have ended up with the Macie Institution. Hm. What if James Smithson had never been born.
In 2015, the 250th anniversary of his birth, it’s hard to imagine a Washington without the Smithsonian Institution. It’s hard to conceive of local life in the federal city – just ordinary daily life for Washingtonians – without the Smithsonian Building as a runner’s backdrop, without the prolific day in-day out lineup of expert lectures and events, without outings to the National Zoo! (As Castle curator Rick Stamm noted, the inspiration for the latter stems from local children who would visit the Castle to see the bison housed there, all the better for scientists to study them. The bison, that is.) It’s nearly impossible to imagine life for Washingtonians without such a readily accessible infrastructure of education, culture, creativity, innovation and exploration, available for locals to dip in and dip out of, for free, nearly every day of the year. (Not to mention the impact for the millions of tourists who flock to the city and take up the knowledge gauntlet thrown by a prescient donor who decided to take a chance on America.)
Washington without the Smithsonian? Imagine.