Secrets of the Smithson Monument

Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

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..."

The result was the Smithsonian Building, known as the Castle, located along the National Mall in Washington, DC, between the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument.

In 1900 the Smithsonian Regents learned that Smithson's grave site in Genoa, Italy was endangered by the expansion of a nearby quarry. By 1903, Regent Alexander Graham Bell and his wife were on their way to Europe to retrieve the monument and Smithson's remains.

While Smithson's casket was displayed in the Regent's Room in the Castle, his monument was reassembled and placed in the North Entrance of the Castle, where it can be seen today.

The monument is as much an object of veneration as one of curiosity.

Many read the inscription

Sacred to the Memory of James Smithson Esq.
Fellow of the Royal Society London,
who died at Genoa
the 26th June 1829.
Aged 75 years.

but few people today understand the symbolic language of the marker's very shape and its decoration.

Although Smithson's monument was designed in the shape of a sarcophagus, an ancient funerary form constructed to hold the earthly remains of the deceased, it was not his repository. It was merely a grandiose marker for the grave below.

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.

The massive urn is supported on platforms carved in the shape of lions' feet. The lion represents strength, and its paws were decorative devices on chairs and thrones in both ancient Egypt and Greece.

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.

The marker is capped with a pine cone finial which symbolizes regeneration. This is particularly apt given that Smithson's bequest to America has borne fruit a thousand times over in its mandate for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge."

Credits: Story

Narrative Adapted From
"Of Sarcophagi and Symbols," by Michael Hendron,
Smithsonian Preservation Quarterly, Summer/Fall 1995.

Exhibit By
Marc Bretzfelder
Smithsonian Institution
Office of the Chief Information Officer

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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