The Guggenheim Museum was founded by Solomon R. Guggenheim, one of seven brothers who made a huge fortune from the mining and refining of metals and minerals in the later part of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. In their acquisition of wealth, the Guggenheim family made their name as some of America's most ruthless formative capitalists and were widely criticised in the press for the treatment of their workers. Through their efforts to generate positive publicity the Guggenheims began to spend their wealth and transformed themselves into philanthropic pioneers, alongside the Rockerfellers and Carnegies, creating a legacy that includes aeronautics, medical research, and above all, art.
Today the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation is itself a multi-national company. In addition to the original Museum in New York, there are branches, in Las Vegas and Venice, and two further museums operated as franchises in Berlin and Bilbao with a fifth planed for Abu Dabi. If you include all of the planned and failed ventures, the Guggenheim empire spans around twenty cities over five continents, from Rio de Janeiro, to Taichung, Salzburg, Guadalajara, Tokyo, St Petersburg, Hong Kong, Edinburgh and Geelong.
The small town of Kennekott in Alaksa was built in 1903 by the Alaska Syndicate, a mining and refining company set up by the Guggenheim family and the financier J.P. Morgan to exploit rich copper deposits in the glacial wilderness of eastern Alaska. A railway was built that stretched over 315 kilometres from the 5 mountain-top mines across treacherous and uninhabited terrain to the sea port where the copper was transported by a Guggenheim owned shipping line to the Guggenheim owned smelter in Washington state. It took thousands of men to build the railway, working effectively as slave labour, earning barely more than their keep, and suffering the extreme weather and arctic temperatures in a 24 hour construction operation that lasted four years. The use of violence and strike-breakers were not uncommon practices, for which the Guggenheims were widely vilified, and by a public who increasingly viewed the Alaska Syndicate as corporate colonialists who were succeeding to purchase and monopolise one of the last great wildernesses on earth.
The city of Tshikapa was planned and built as an administrative centre for the diamond mining company ForminieÌ€re, which was formed in 1906 when the colonial ruler of the Belgian Congo, King Leopold II, teamed up with a group of American investors including the Guggenheims. Engineers from Guggenex, a Guggenheim owned subsidiary were instrumental in the discovery of diamonds in the Kasai region that surrounds Tshikapa, close to the border with Angola. In extracting the diamonds, ForminieÌ€re continued many of the practices of the colonial regime who had used forced labor to extract these natural resources from the land, whilst concealing the true value of the material from local people, paying them off with cheap trinkets and salt. The consequences of such practices have been evidenced in the political and economic turmoil in this region over the course of the twentieth century, and echoes remain today in the exploitation, by logging companies, of the natural resources of the Democratic Republic of Congo.