Happy birthday, The Smithsonian!
When James Smithson died in 1829, his will stipulated that the fortune he had collected -- perhaps "treasury" is a better word -- should be assigned to the United States in the case that his nephew had no heir. We may all remain thankful that his nephew died childless in 1835. Nearly a decade after President Andrew Jackson announced the bequest to Congress, on August 10, 1846, President James K. Polk signed into law a bill establishing the Smithsonian Institution.
It remains a mystery why this ever came to pass. Smithson didn't know the United States or Americans. Historians' best guess remains that Smithson's move was a snub to British law and gentry, who refused to recognize him as the rightful son to his esteemed father, Sir Hugh Smithson, 4th Baronet of Stanwick. (James Smithson, née Jacques Louis Macie, was born to his father's mistress.)
Today marks the Smithsonian's 164th birthday. Here are five ways to observe the occasion.
1) Smithson's Mortuary Chapel. Oft photographed but rarely visited, the Smithsonian Castle holds the Smithsonian crypt -- an even less frequented destination on the National Mall. Alexander Graham Bell, who served as Smithsonian Institution Regent, brought Smithson's remains from Italy to Washington in 1904. President Teddy Roosevelt sent the Marine band to greet him. It was Smithson's first and final visit to the United States. Visitors can pay respects at Smithson's sarcophagus, but they should note that it incorrectly states his age at death as 75. (He was 64.)
2) The Freer Gallery of Art's Peacock Room. Granted, NBC is a big fan of the peacock. But never mind that -- this room is a treasure. One of the most opulent rooms on the National Mall, James McNeill Whistler's late 19th century Peacock Room moved from its original site in London to the mansion of American collector Charles Freer before it was moved, finally, in 1923 to the Freer Gallery of Art. Originally, Whistler was brought on as a consultant to suggest a color scheme for the doors and shutters of the dining room of one Frederick Leyland, a Liverpool-born shipping magnate. Whistler covertly overhauled the room, painting it floor to ceiling in blue and gold peacock patterns and contributing the painting, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, among others. The redesign shocked Leyland, who refused to pay Whistler's invoice. Whistler responded with a painting of two peacocks squabbling over a bag of coins.
3) The Kogod Courtyard. Because birthday or no, today it's hot outside, and the Kogod Courtyard -- at the center of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture -- is cool. Enjoying a beer beneath an olive tree under the Lord Foster glass canapé is as close as a Washingtonian gets to a spring day in August in D.C. (or in Greece).
4) The Mitsitam Cafe. One of the biggest draws of the National Museum of the American Indian is not an exhibit, but a cafeteria offering native foods from across the Americas. Don't go expecting Midwestern casseroles or Southwestern Tex-Mex, but older, regional foodways from Meso America, the Great Plains, Northern Woodlands and other regions. One of the best lunch spots anywhere in D.C., it's especially welcome on the generic hot dog stand–littered National Mall.
5) The National Museum of Natural History's Geology, Gems & Minerals collection. This gem writes itself. Given that Smithson made his name as a mineralogist, it's only appropriate to recommend a tour through this splendid permanent collection. Forget the Hope Diamond -- the collection is chock-a-block with fantastic samples of every sort of gem, ore and geode. The uncut stones reveal the astonishing geometrical flair of the world's natural sculpture.