This Week in History

Scenes from Museums Past


I’ve been learning a lot about the great history of Charleston, South Carolina, lately, and have been delighted by its colorful characters, extraordinary events, and generally rich culture. However, being the museum nerd that I am, I was pleasantly surprised to see the contributions Charleston has made in the development of American museums.

Most significantly, the Holy City is home to the first museum built in the United States. The Charleston Museum was founded in 1773 and still stands proud along the city’s Museum Mile. However, it is the story of Joel Roberts Poinsett and the little known National Institute for the Promotion of Science that we’ll be exploring here today.

Joel Roberts Poinsett, proud son of the South, was a man who wore many hats. Below are just a few of the accomplishments of Poinsett’s life:

  • Fluent in English, Italian, French, Spanish, and German.
  • Educated in medicine, the law, and military science.
  • Became the first ambassador to Mexico in 1825.
  • Served as Secretary of War from 1837 – 41.
  • Was both a South Carolina State Legislator and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • During his time in Mexico and South America, he was charged with exploring the potential of various revolutionary groups and even acted as an advocate for Greek independence.
  • On a trip to the Middle East in the early 1800s, he was shown some petroleum, which he believed could have a future as a fuel.
  • An avid botanist, Poinsett, during his time in Mexico, came across a winter plant that had been popular as far back as the Aztecs. Sending samples back to the U.S., the plant, which would become known as the poinsettia, has remained a holiday favorite ever since.

In spite of all of these noteworthy accomplishments, it is Poinsett’s role as co-founder of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science that should be of particular interest to museum lovers.

In 1838, the United States successfully secured their right to a bequest from the British chemist and naturalist, James Smithson. The money was to be given “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” With money in hand, Congress began the debate about the creation of a national museum.

Poinsett – a botanist, as we have already noted – was a strong advocate for a national museum. During his tenure as Secretary of War, he had naturalists accompany soldiers on exploratory expeditions. He believed that a museum would be the perfect venue for accumulated specimens, and an opportunity to showcase that America, though young, was fast on its way to becoming Europe’s cultural equal. Having put his ideas before Congress, Poinsett went about trying to find a way to secure the Smithson bequest to make his museum dream a reality.

In 1840, he co-founded the National Institute for the Promotion of Science. This organization was the force behind the collection of specimens and items on display at the Patent Office Building in D.C. The collection lacked appropriate funding and was perhaps a bit disorganized, but it put the idea of the “Nation’s Attic” into the minds of politicians and the public alike.

Eventually, the National Institute for the Promotion of Science failed to secure the funds of the Smithson bequest. However, by setting the precedent for a national museum, Poinsett’s group was the predecessor to the Smithsonian Institution as we know it today.

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