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The Australian National University

The Exhumation of James Smithson - Discussed by one of our project's Chief Investigators, Associate Professor Martin Thomas

A man – or the remnants of one – stares from his coffin. The cranium with its cavernous eye sockets is all you see of him. The ribs, vertebrae and long bones are hidden by earth or mulch. It’s a photographic slide, a monochrome, and it provides a view of the cemetery from which the coffin was disinterred. A path between rows of graves cuts through the composition, extending to infinity, as if to suggest that this man, though dead, has a journey ahead of him – which was in fact the case.

Image ID 09986.tif: Smithson’s bones from the lantern slide series ‘Alexander Graham Bell’s visit to the San Benigno cemetery to retrieve the tomb of James Smithson, Geona, Italy, 1904.’ Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection, Library of Congress Lot 11533-26 (J).

The skeleton was James Smithson, an English scientist and fellow of the Royal Society. A creature of the Enlightenment, he investigated such mysteries as the chemistry of snake venom and teardrops. He was also extremely rich. A mineral ore, Smithsonite, is named after him and, more famously, a rather large complex of museums and research facilities. When Smithson died in Italy in 1829 aged sixty-four, he had never set foot in the United States. But he willed his fortune ‘to found in Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.’

Smithson rested in peace on the outskirts of Genoa until the early twentieth century, at which time quarrying beneath the cemetery threatened its stability. News of this reached the regents of the Smithsonian and one of them, the fame of whom surpasses Smithson, was especially alarmed. He was Alexander Graham Bell, a long-term Washingtonian, and he led a campaign to have Smithson’s bones transported to the US and interred on Institution premises. To this end, Bell travelled to Genoa in 1903 to bring home the benefactor. Whether he took, or merely commissioned, this lantern slide is unknown. It is part of a series of more than thirty slides, documenting the removal and opening of the coffin and its ceremonial removal to the port where the voyage to America began. There is a close-up view of the skull, being held by the American consul in Genoa, and various slides depicting Bell, bearded, venerable, and himself somewhat ghost-like in his mourning attire, superintending these momentous affairs.

Image ID 09987.tif: The American Consul William Bishop holds Smithson’s skull. Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection, Library of Congress Lot 11533-26 (J).

Whether Bell publicly exhibited the slides is one of many unanswered questions raised by the image. Perhaps he shared them only with friends and family. The slides and a set of matching photographic prints are held in Library of Congress, donated by Dr Gilbert Grosvenor, Bell’s son-in-law, another passionate advocate for the rescue of Smithson’s remains. Grosvenor was the longstanding president of the National Geographic Society who, as editor of the Magazine, transformed it into the international phenomenon we know today. Powerful forces coalesce around this projected image of a box of bones, preserved in memory by the ‘father’ of the telephone and the man who is sometimes described as the ‘father of photojournalism’.

Image ID 11533_26 No. 29.tif: Alexander Graham Bell (facing camera) in Genoa. Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection, Library of Congress Lot 11533-26 (J).

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