The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
You Spin Me Right Round
For a statue, the bronze representation of Joseph Henry, first Secretary of the Smithsonian, sure does get around. Located in front of the Smithsonian Institution Building, or Castle, the statue gazes across the National Mall at the vast museum complex he helped create.
In June of 1880, Congress appropriated $15,000 for the erection of a bronze statue of the late Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry on the grounds of the Institution. The Board of Regents, the governing body of the Smithsonian, was authorized to contract sculptor William Wetmore Story for the design and sculpture of the Joseph Henry statue.
At the time of its unveiling on April 19, 1883, the statue was located on the National Mall, about 150 feet northwest of the Castle facing the west wing. In 1934, the National Mall was reconfigured and the statue was relocated to the front of the Castle's north central entrance. It's well known, and quite well documented, that Joseph Henry wasn't particularly fond of the Castle, yet Secretary Charles Greeley Abbot approved facing the statue toward the building.
The construction of the Castle was an item of contention for Henry as he questioned the practicality of using up resources that could be devoted to scientific pursuit on the building of a self-indulgent and fanciful structure. He believed it to be a "fantastic and almost useless building," an "immense absorbing reservoir" of the Institution's funds, and a "sad mistake." The Castle included living quarters for Henry and his family, so not only did he work inside its walls, he lived inside them and he died inside them. The decision to face his statue towards the building relegated his likeness to stare indefinitely at a structure he despised.
The 1965 Bicentennial Celebration of James Smithson's birth prompted a dizzying move for the Joseph Henry statue. In May of 1965 Secretary S. Dillon Ripley had the Joseph Henry statue turned around to face Smithsonian museums across the Mall so that he might look upon the legacy of his devotion to the increase and diffusion of knowledge.