Deciphering the Symbolism of James Smithson's Memorial
James Smithson, a wealthy British scientist, left his estate to his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, and stated that if his nephew died without an heir, the money would go "to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge ...." His nephew did indeed die without an heir, and Smithson's estate of over $500,000 eventually came to the United States where the government founded an institution in his name.
Among the first directives in the bill establishing the Smithsonian Institution was that the leaders "shall cause to be erected a suitable building, of plain and durable materials and structure, without unnecessary ornament, and of sufficient size, and with suitable rooms or halls, for the reception and arrangement, upon a liberal scale, of objects of natural history, including a geological and mineralogical cabinet; also a chemical laboratory, a library, a gallery of art, and the necessary lecture rooms..."
When the marker was installed in the Crypt in 1905, a red Tennessee marble base was built beneath it to house the coffin.
The plaque on the base reads
James Smithson, Founder of the Smithsonian Institution, who died at Genoa Italy June 26, 1829. These his remains were brought to the United States in 1904 for reinterment in the care of the Institution he founded.
Large central medallions, comprised of a moth inside a laurel wreath, decorated with laurel branches and festooned with ribbon, are carved into the front and back of the marker. Moths, having "died" as caterpillars, represent new life after death. In classical times, the long-lasting laurel leaf fashioned into a wreath signified achievement, victory, and eternity while laurel branches with foliage generally represent the Tree of Life.
A coved frieze is carved with (l-r) a bird, a laurel branch, a serpent, a scallop shell, another serpent, an ambiguous symbol that may represent a mineral, and a moth.
The bird represents flight, particularly that of a soul ascending to Heaven. To the ancients, the serpent was an object of veneration, as a repository of great wisdom and power. The scallop shell was a favorite decorative device of the Greeks and Romans, who associated it with the sea, and thus with eternity and rebirth.
Narrative Adapted From
"Of Sarcophagi and Symbols," by Michael Hendron,
Smithsonian Preservation Quarterly, Summer/Fall 1995.
Office of the Chief Information Officer