Current Events and Philanthropy / From the Editors

Curating Philanthropic History

Yesterday, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History unveiled a long-term Philanthropy Initiative, which includes a new display, “Giving in America,” and a collections effort that “represents Americans’ gifts of time, talent, expertise and money.” They also held their first annual philanthropy symposium, “The Power of Giving: Philanthropy’s Impact on American Life” featuring eminences such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and David Rockefeller.

The full long-term exhibit will open next year, on Giving Tuesday. But there is a preview display now on view, with artifacts from the turn of the last century Gilded Age as well as from today.

According to an inaugural blog post from David Allison, one of the initiative’s curators who previously curated the museum’s new American Enterprise exhibition,  the idea for a focus on philanthropy stemmed from a consideration of “how capitalism works within our democracy” and “why Americans become motivated to give back to support the common good.” Visitors can see, among other artifacts, a register book showing the 1,600 libraries financed by Andrew Carnegie and original copies of the Giving Pledge letters from signatories.

This is an important development in the public history of philanthropy and it raises a host of questions: to what extent will voices critical of philanthropy be included in the exhibition (Allison gestures mildly at this tradition when he remarks that “Carnegie’s perspective on the responsibilities of the very wealthy was controversial in America then and remains so today”)?; to what extent will be exhibition’s treatment of contemporary philanthropy be shaped–perhaps unconsciously–by some of its generous benefactors, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and David Rubinstein? What sorts of regional, ethnic and religious traditions will be represented? How will the traditions of mass giving and large-scale philanthropy be balanced?

The museum is now actively “seeking philanthropy-related artifacts and documents to add to our permanent collections.” But we wanted to throw the question to our readers: what artifacts do you think the Smithsonian should highlight to tell the story of philanthropy in the United States? Feel free to write in with your suggestions.

4 thoughts on “Curating Philanthropic History

  1. Two suggestions:

    The single most important artifact to include would be page 1 of Hamilton’s First Federalist, the locus classicus of “American philanthropy”, which launches the Founders’ argument for ratification of the Constitution saying that “It has been frequently remarked” that Americans are at a new place in history, in designing their own government. “This idea will add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism,….” He was not talking about rich people helping poor people, or of what modern foundations do; he was invoking the Classical concept of “philanthropy” as originally coined on line 11 of “Prometheus Bound”: philanthropos tropos, the “love of humanity” (in the sense of humaneness—what it is to be human—cf. “philosophy” as the “love of wisdom”), which our Founders inherited from the Scottish Enlightenment as its central ethical precept. What the Founders were saying is that they conceived and designed the United States of America to be a philanthropic nation, a gift to mankind, which would enhance the human condition worldwide. All this is explained in Chapter Two of (sorry) my book Philanthropy Reconsidered: “Philanthropy’s Finest Hour.”

    Second would be Cotton Mather’s short treatise of 1710, ” Bonifacius: or An Essay to Do Good” which Ben Franklin said influenced his whole life. It, in turn, was heavily influenced by Sir Francis Bacon’s essay “On Goodness” which he defined as “the affecting of the weale of men, or what the Grecians call philanthropía.”

    The point is that the Classical concept of philanthropy has been directly connected to American history—at the practical level through Tocqueville’s “voluntary associations”, which qualify as “private initiatives for public good” and created the American Revolution, and at the conceptual level as noted above.


  2. Another possibility might be to present a Google NGram on the history of the words “philanthropy” and “nonprofit” in American English, from 1700 to the Present.

    What it shows is that: 1) America has had two periods in which the word’s usage was relatively common, presumably in reference to current events or developments. The first was in the late-18th century, around the American Revolution and Constitution; the second was in the mid-19th century, with the anti-slavery movement and the Civil War.

    Moreover, it strongly suggests that the historically traditional meaning of the word—loving (cherishing, enhancing, cultivating, strengthening) what it is to be human (humaneness or humanity) lasted up through the Civil War. Its usage declined with the decline of Classical education; “nonprofit” did not ascend until the late 20th century, arising out of academic social science.

    One place where it lost its traditional meaning was in Noah Webster’s Dictionary (1828), which was hugely influential, and in which Webster invented a lot. He wanted to contrast “friendship” or favoring of individuals, with “philanthropy”, or affection for everyone. This seems to have been one of his innovations—it certainly was not what traditional authorities from the Greeks through the Enlightenment had in mind.


  3. As someone interested in the rise of charitable fundraising in the C19th, I would include the following artefacts in a collection/exhibition on philanthropy:
    – charitable directories
    – annual reports
    – tickets for fundraising drawing room meetings/ annual general meetings
    – collecting boxes
    – collecting cards
    – newspaper reports
    – programmes for entertainment related fundraising events (concerts. choirs etc)
    – items relating to charitable bazaars (there are some lovely posters and merchandise). If it was a UK exhibition, I would include the pre-raphaelite James Collinson painting “The empty purse”


    • If that sort of documentation, it should be extended to include Ben Franklin’s fundraising articles and appeals from the Philadelphia Gazette in the 1700s, which included challenge/matching gifts and many other “modern” techniques, used for a wide range of well-known causes—e.g., the American Philosophical Society, the University of Pennsylvania, a civic meeting house, postal services, in 1747 a private “voluntary association” of armed men to establish peace in the Commonwealth (a prototype of the American Revolutionary Army) and at the end of his life the Franklin Trust, etc.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s