How Arkansas Almost Killed the Smithsonian

Any traveler with an afternoon to spend in Washington, D.C., knows where to go—to the Capitol Mall, of course, with its monuments flanked by a collection of the nation’s best museums. These museums are part of the Smithsonian Institution, a vast organization comprising nine research centers and 19 museums covering everything from natural history to American history, air and space to modern art. The Smithsonian is also responsible for the National Zoo, where D.C.’s second-most famous family, the giant pandas, reside amid bamboo and camera clicks. The Smithsonian is a critical organization to our national life, founded for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” With more than 137 million objects in its collection, the Smithsonian serves as a kind of “nation’s attic.” These artifacts, including thousands of photographs and sound recordings, document all aspects of American life—the good, the bad, the amazing and the mundane.

All this and the Smithsonian nearly failed to start because of Arkansas.

It started with the curious will of a British scientist named James Smithson. Smithson, despite never having been to the United States, left his fortune for the founding of an educational organization in Washington, D.C., to be called the Smithsonian Institution. Congress accepted the bequest in 1836, seven years after Smithson’s death. Andrew Jackson sent a diplomat to Britain to accept the gift. The diplomat returned to the U.S. in 1838 with 105 sacks of gold coins estimated to be worth nearly $20 million in today’s terms, nearly equal to the entire endowment of Harvard at the time. After a lot of wrangling among members of Congress on what to do with the money, they invested it in U.S. Treasury bonds issued by Arkansas, Illinois and Michigan. Arkansas, then not even a teenager of a state, did what one would expect of a youngster handed several million dollars: The state spent the money and never paid it back. The default nearly crippled the Smithsonian Institution before it started. Thanks to the efforts of former President John Quincy Adams, who was serving as a representative from Massachusetts, Congress replaced the funds lost by Arkansas. The Smithsonian finally became an institution with James Polk’s signature in 1846.

No one seems to know what happened with those bonds, but all indications are that Arkansas never did repay their defaults, at least with money. Soon after the Smithsonian fiasco came the Civil War and other matters to which the state had to attend. But over the decades, bit by bit, Arkansas has been figuratively paying back its debts through contributions to the institution’s collections—cultural, geological and historical. Here are just a handful of the items from Arkansas in the Smithsonian’s collection.

Paintings

Malvern native Natalie Smith Henry was one of the many artists hired in the New Deal to create public art. “Local Industries,” which hangs in the American Art Museum, is an oil painting Henry completed in preparation for a mural in the Springdale post office. Henry interviewed families in the Springdale area while composing the painting to ensure it was an accurate representation of the local economy.

Quilts

Several Arkansas quilts from the mid-1800s are in the collection of the American History Museum. One of the most interesting among them is a quilt called “Whig’s Defeat” that was meant to mark the 1844 victory of James Polk over Henry Clay. Who would have known quilts could serve as political symbols?

Native pottery

Arkansas’ pre-Columbus past is rich, as the displays at the American Indian Museums in both New York and Washington, D.C clearly show. At both centers of exhibition, several clay vessels dating to the Late Mississippian period (A.D. 1200-1500) found in eastern Arkansas are on display. Formed in the shape of human bodies and heads, these pots serve as a good indication of what early Arkansas settlers might have looked like.

Rocks

Arkansas is known for its rich and varied geology, and the Smithsonian’s collection has hundreds of samples of Arkansas rocks and minerals, ranging from bauxite to diamonds. Visitors to the Natural History Museum can see a couple of native Arkansas stones on exhibit in the museum’s rock and gem halls. The most notable of these is a sample of pulaskite, a rock formed by a volcano and collected in … you guessed it: Little Rock.

Presidents

No “nation’s attic” would be complete without presidential memorabilia, including, of course, mementos from Arkansas’ only president. The Smithsonian has Hillary Clinton’s first inaugural gown in its collection, as well as several other items from her husband’s presidency. Clinton himself was a familiar person to Smithsonian staff. Pamela Hinson, director of institutional history at the Smithsonian, says that “[President Clinton] would jog down the National Mall most mornings with his Secret Service detail and wave hello to us as we were on our way to work.”

Birds

The Natural History Museum has one of the largest collections of bird specimens in the world, including many collected in Arkansas. There are Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and Bachman’s Warblers—both now extinct or nearly so from habitat loss—collected more than a century ago. In one exhibit hall, you can see what it might have looked like to see parakeets in the trees along the Arkansas River. North America’s only native parakeet, the Carolina Parakeet, was hunted to extinction for making hats that have long since gone out of style.

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