Museum #2: The Smithsonian Castle

When I was an intern at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum during the 2008-9 academic year, I used to walk to and from my office across the Mall.  Depending on the time of day, I’d be stopped by several tourists who wanted to know, “Where’s the Smithsonian?” As we learn from Night at the Museum 2, the Smithsonian is actually 19 different museums, including the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York.  The short answer to the question, aside from “It’s all around you! What do you want to see?”, is this beautiful building.

The Smithsonian Castle. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Newsdesk

My relationship to this building, prior to our M365 trip, was a spotty one. On nice days during the first summer of my internship, the other USHMM interns and I would eat in the Enid A. Haupt Garden in the backyard. I’m pretty sure I’d ducked in once or twice to get out of the rain. It makes a good landmark, and, again, a good directional point for tourists.  I didn’t realize just how much I was missing until Boyfriend and I stopped by at the end of our last NMNH day.

First off, the building itself is a gorgeous space.  It was designed by James Renwick, Jr., and completed in 1855.  The exterior is made of red Seneca sandstone, from right up the road in Seneca Creek, Maryland.  Back then, the castle was the Smithsonian: it housed research facilities, artifacts, a lecture hall, and the Secretary of the Smithsonian and his family.

Today, the Castle serves as a jumping-off point for exploring the rest of the Smithsonian museums.  Among the highlights in that vein are:

  • a funny and delightfully irreverent orientation film narrated by Ben Stiller
  • a scale model of the National Mall and vicinity
  • artifacts representing the collections of sixteen of the Smithsonian museums

The artifact cases were one of our favorite parts of the Castle.  Since we went at the very beginning of the M365 project, the cases gave us a glimpse of what the next 51 weekends were going to hold for us.  From postage stamps to moccasins and vases to Yoruba figurines, these cases are a great way to whet your appetite and figure out where to start your journey through “America’s Treasure Chest.”

Unfortunately, the other exhibits in the West Wing leading up to the artifact walls struck us as somewhat tired.  An orchid display next to one information desk and an exhibit on scientific artists in residence at the Smithsonian had labels in need of care, and, in the case of the orchid, at least a cleaning and visual update.  We hope future exhibits will have the kind of attractive power and visual appeal of the artifact cases.  This is not to say the subject wasn’t interesting–I certainly didn’t know anything about scientific illustrators, and found the four men whose work was highlighted (as well as their work, both in two-dimensions and plaster casts of fish) eye-opening to the practice of science in the early days of the Smithsonian. Worth a look, especially if you’re on your way to Natural History.

Also, there’s a crypt. James Smithson’s crypt, to be exact. After you fellow museum geeks pay homage to him, make sure you read the wall text about how an English scientist who had never been to the United States came to be the impetus for the founding of the research institution and museum complex we know and love, as well as how Smithson’s body, buried in Italy, came to reside in DC.  A passage from Smithson’s will reads:

In the case of the death of my said Nephew without leaving a child or children, or the death of the child or children he may have had under the age of twenty-one years or intestate, I then bequeath the whole of my property subject to the Annuity of One Hundred pounds to John Fitall, & for the security & payment of which I mean Stock to remain in this Country, to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.

We thank you for it.

Other Amenities at the Castle

  • Castle Café, which has an expensive but delicious menu, including salads, sandwiches, espresso, and gelato. Become a Smithsonian Resident Associate and the food is 10% off.
  • Two information desks with brochures about the museums and very helpful staff.
  • The Castle opens at 8:30 am, a full hour and a half before the museums, so early birds have plenty of time to get oriented and pumped for their museum trips.


About museums365

Museum educator, space lover, baseball fan, citizen history rabble-rouser.

Posted on January 30, 2010, in Smithsonian. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Just think, if that nephew had had kids…

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