150 Years of Lucky Dip

Michael Leech investigates the Smithsonian, a national landmark in America.

'Curiouser and curiouser' said Alice as she tumbled down the rabbit hole to Wonderland. If she was to visit the eclectic collections of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC today Alice might at first feel as disorientated as a dinosaur.

Founded 150 years ago this August, the Smithsonian is a national landmark in the centre of the US's majestic capital. Despite constant change and updating (it's hooked into the Internet) the Smithsonian remains in essence a vast Victorian collection of curiosities.

It all began with an Englishman, James Smithson who left his considerable estate in 1829, to a nephew. A few years later when the nephew died without heirs the fledgling United States benefited from the stipulation in Smithson's will that if this occurred he wished the money to found 'an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge' in Washington.

The money (then the equivalent of $515,169) arrived in bags of gold sovereigns, adding a touch of fairy-tale to an organisation that already seems fantastic. From that time on Smithson's golden shower started all manner of halls bounding on the central mall.

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