069: The Stranger and the Statesman by Nina Burleigh

by Gerard

069.09753:  Burleigh, Nina. The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America’s Greatest Museum. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. 268 pp. ISBN 0-06-000241-7.

Museology is a weird field of study. It is the study of the history and use of museums, but even though it’s an “ology,” it’s not a true science. So, where do you place it? There are those who want to move it to the 300s, seeing as though museums and galleries have an inherently social function. There’s even space open at 308 or 309. BUT, museums are institutions with the expressed purpose of displaying artifacts for the betterment of those who enter them. This sentiment of bettering humankind, while pervasive throughout history, really began in earnest with the creation of scientific and artistic societies, and it was these societies that had the money available to house and maintain such artifacts. As such, museum science gets classed just at the end of the 060s—Associations, organization, and museums.

Nina Burleigh’s The Stranger and the Statesman chronicles the life and bequest of James Smithson, the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, 1st Duke of Northumberland. His mother, Elizabeth Hungerford Keate, was already a feisty and rich widow when she gave birth to James in France in 1764 or 1765 (nobody knows for sure). At 17 or so, he enrolled at Oxford and earned his M.A. in 1786. He was astutely interested in mineralogy and impressed renowned scientists Henry Cavendish and Charles Greville sufficiently as to warrant their sponsorship for his election to the Royal Society. At 22, he was the youngest member ever elected.

His scientific career carried him throughout Europe, corresponding with the greatest geological minds of the day, even though his research wasn’t particularly ground-breaking or monumental. He simply roamed the countryside, investigating any wonderful rock formation that came across his path. At his death, he had amassed a collection of thousands of mineral samples. His financial acumen matched his scientific, and he was able to sustain the inheritance he received from his mother’s death and turn it into a substantial fortune. He left a simple will: He left everything to his nephew, Henry James Dickinson, and if Henry died without heirs, then the remaining fortune was to be sent “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

And that’s exactly what happened.

Henry died in 1835 (without heirs) and the United States government sent Richard Rush (son of the Founding Father Benjamin Rush) to England to retrieve the fortune. After an unnerving legal battle, Richard returned to America in 1838 with $508,000. One of the many curiosities about this case is that Smithson had never been to America, never corresponded with anyone at great length about his plans for his money, and never previously contributed to American causes. But even with all the mystery surrounding the bequest, and after some intense wrangling by retired president John Quincy Adams, the Smithsonian Institution was built in 1846.

Burleigh’s investigation into the life of Smithson comes against the usual historical boondoggle – documentation. There are a lot of details about his life that are aren’t known, either because no one recorded them or they were destroyed in 1865 by a fire. So, there’s a fair amount of conjecture in the book, but it’s not enough to make you question the entire work. The machinations of aristocratic and scientific England were very pleasant to read, especially when juxtaposed against the political battle in Washington in creating the museum. All in all, I enjoyed it.