The Man Who Built the Castle
THE LOST WORLD OF JAMES SMITHSON:Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian.By Heather Ewing.Bloomsbury.432 pp. $29.95
Gracing the National Mall in Washington, D.C., with several splendid buildings, the Smithsonian Institution is a huge tourist attraction, a repository of art and culture, and a pioneering center of scientific research. As is well known, this singular American institution, encompassing 19 museums and nine research centers, came about because of a quirk in the will of an Englishman who gallivanted around Europe all his life but never crossed the Atlantic. Luckily for us, the man born Jacques Louis Macie changed his name in midlife to James Smithson, hoping to gain an ounce more respect in the salons of London and Paris. It would have been hard to turn “Macie” into a mellifluous name to etch into stone.
Architectural historian Heather Ewing cannot be faulted for failing to summon a full portrait of the man. A disastrous 1865 fire at the Smithsonian destroyed Smithson’s letters and notes along with his scientific collections. Scouring libraries and private collections throughout Europe, Ewing has made a remarkable effort to gather up what documentary evidence remains of his existence.