Illegitimate Englishman donated millions to U.S.: Which museum bears his name?

Here’s an unusual piece of American history that illustrates the power of philanthropy and what happens when money is used for the purpose it was intended. Imagine what James Smithson must think if he can view Smithsonian Castle and all the other buildings that line the Mall in Washington D.C.? Possibly, he’s pleased as punch.

Smithson, an illegitimate Englishman who died in 1829, left between $50 to $100 million dollars to the United States, a country he had never visited. His desire was for his money to be used “‘for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.’”

If the slew of buildings that includes the Air and Space Museum, the American History Museum, and the African Art Museum isn’t an indication of what can happen when one person’s generosity is put to good use, I don’t know what is. Of course, Smithson’s money wasn’t enough to create all of the Smithsonian’s building, but still, consider what what can happen when there’s a mighty good idea that has a healthy start.

In this article that first appeared in the Washington Post, Moira E. McLaughlin covers a bit of the history of Smithson’s gift that consisted of 105 bags of gold. She also points out the significance of Smithsonian Castle, the Smithsonian’s first building that is now used for the Smithsonian’s administrative offices and information center. According to McLaughlin, the information center is a perfect place to begin a visit to the Smithsonian. It can help you orient the rest of your time there.

I’ve been to the Smithsonian several times and have never visited The Castle. Next time I’m in D.C., this is my first stop. In case no one has thanked you properly James Smithson,THANKS a million times over. Your gift was truly splendid.

If the style of the building looks familiar, it’s because its architect, James Renwick, Jr. also designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

Book events and readings as a travel pursuit

As a cheap entertainment option when traveling, head to a book store to catch an author talk or reading. While movies have approached $10 or higher in many cities, book store readings are usually free. If you’re in a college town or major city, your chances of a book reading happening during your trip are pretty high. I also went to book events in Singapore and New Delhi. Anywhere where there are book stores, there will be book events at one time or another.

Tonight, for example, I headed to one of the Barnes and Noble bookstores in Columbus to hear a talk by Washington Post columnist and book critic Michael Dirda. Earlier today I heard him on a local talk show, “Open Line with Fred Anderle,” thought he sounded interesting, didn’t have plans, so there I went. Dirda’s latest book is a collection of essays about the pleasure of reading classics called Classics for Pleasure.

Listening to writers read, talk about their work and answer audience questions stimulates me to think about my own perceptions of life and the world. I bought a cup of tea which cost $1.55 with tax and that was all I spent. I do normally buy one of the author’s books, but I have one of Dirda’s already and yesterday was a day of spending money elsewhere.

If you go on Barnes and Noble’s Web site, there’s a place where you type in a city, town or state, pick from a drop down menu what type of event you are looking for and it will let you know what authors are coming within a 25 mile range up to three months from now. There’s another option where you type in the name of the author and that author’s events will show up. Anne Lamott, one of the funniest, most poignant writers around, for example, has a few readings scheduled –one of them is at the Union Square Barnes and Noble. The store, pictured in the photo, has author events as a regular feature.

The Harvard Book Store also has several authors making appearances through the Author Event Series. If you’re going to be in Cambridge or Boston, head here.