Category Archives: Smithsonian

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.


Mid-Week Spotlight: “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life”

Last spring, I had the good fortune of going to Ford’s Theatre to see the reading of a new musical written by the father of one of my college friends. The absolutely delightful musical, Lincoln in Love, concerned the young Abe Lincoln and his future bride, Mary Todd, as they met and began their courtship. I thought this one evening of singing (and laughter!) would be the closest I would come to seeing this giant of a man for the human he was.

Until today.

The National Museum of American History has been giving Meet Our Museum talks on Thursdays, where curators talk to the public about objects and exhibits of interest. This week, I had the amazing good fortune to take a tour with Harry Rubenstein, curator of “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life,” of this exhibit, which, while grounded in the larger historical events of the period, focuses on Lincoln the person–Lincoln the self-made man, Lincoln the rail-splitter, Lincoln the coffee-drinker.

I won’t give away all of Harry’s stories–after all, you should come see the exhibit!–but two stick out quite poignantly in my mind, based on objects to which Harry refers as “bookends” of Lincoln’s life.

  • On the left-hand wall shortly after entering the exhibit is a case with a small metal wedge, which has the initials “A L” carved into it. The curator spoke of his initial skepticism that this wedge actually belonged to Lincoln–after all, couldn’t anyone take a metal wedge and carve letters into it and claim greater artifact value? After reading the affidavits that came with the object, however, its true value became clear. The wedge had been found during renovations of a house in New Salem, Illinois, that had belonged to Mentor Graham, a friend of Lincoln’s; Graham’s daughter spoke of Lincoln having given her father the wedge as a present when he left for Springfield, and then of having misplaced the wedge after new flooring was put down. A further affidavit recounted Lincoln bringing his wood-splitting ledge to a blacksmith to have his initials carved in it. When the blacksmith declined, saying he was “no scholar” of letters, Lincoln borrowed the smith’s tools and carved his initials himself.
  • At the end of the exhibit is a White House coffee cup. On April 14, 1865, as the Civil War drew to a close, Abraham and Mary took a carriage ride, just the two of them, to discuss their future. Abraham spoke of wanting to see the gold mines of California; Mary wished to go to Europe with her husband. Full of joy and hope, they decided they would go to the theatre that evening. When they departed, Lincoln had been drinking a cup of coffee, which he set down on a windowsill. After news of the president’s death came to the White House, a servant who had seen Lincoln put down the cup retrieved it from the windowsill and saved it. The cup would be passed to Robert Todd Lincoln, one of Abraham’s children, before coming into the Smithsonian collection. Perhaps this, more than anything else, brought home the humanity of this man of legend.

From the exhibit wall (and webpage):

“During the drive he was so gay, that I said to him, laughingly, ‘Dear husband, you almost startled me by your great cheerfulness,’ he replied, ‘and well I may feel so, Mary, I consider this day, the war, has come to a close’—and then added ‘We must both, be more cheerful in the future—between the war and the loss of our darling Willie—we have both, been very miserable.'”
—Mary Lincoln recounting the carriage ride they took the afternoon before attending Ford’s Theatre on April 14th, 1865

The exhibit is on the third floor of the National Museum of American history inside the “American Presidency” gallery. If you’re in the area, swing by next Thursday at 12:15 for the next Meet Our Museum–and make sure you get upstairs to spend awhile with Abe.

Museum #1: The National Museum of Natural History

Today, after our fourth attempt at seeing the whole of the National Museum of Natural History, Boyfriend and I finally finished seeing all of the exhibits.

This museum is HUGE. Boyfriend and I do not recommend that you attempt to see it all in a day, or even in a visit.  For two “extraordinary museum visitors,” after four hours at NMNH today, we were feeling the museum fatigue set in; studies have shown that most visitors hit this point after a little more than half an hour. Take breaks, discuss with your museum-going partners, enjoy the cafes, ogle the elephant–do not try to take it all in at once.

NMNH, formerly the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of Man, has within its purview the history of the natural world, including animals, vegetables, and minerals, as well as the history of civilization. For the most part, the exhibits within the first half of this mission have been recently updated and are the most casual-visitor friendly.  As a result, juxtaposed against these amazing exhibits, the exhibits that focus on world cultures and human origins look outdated and focused on experts.

In my program, we talk about three types of museum visitors: skimmers (people who just want to look quickly and get a brief overview of the information), swimmers (people who want a moderate amount of information), and divers (people who want to read every single word and learn things that interest experts). The ideal exhibit, in theory, will have information geared at all of these levels of visitors. Boyfriend and I found our favorite exhibitions in the museum were successful at doing so.

Museums365’s Picks

1. The Sant Ocean Hall

Billed as the “largest permanent exhibition” at NMNH, the Sant Ocean Hall is a sweeping, beautiful exploration of life under, on, and above the sea. As far as skimmers, swimmers, and divers go, this exhibit offers something for everyone: interesting and large artifacts or reproductions with large quotes or headings associated with them, including Phoenix, a replica of a sperm whale hanging over the hall, a giant squid, and a living reef; as well as more focused information and smaller artifact drawers. Want to know the evolutionary history of whales from land to sea? You can get the tooth-based or the skeleton-based version. Along the way, cartoon whales help light the way to thinking deeper about big questions that relate humans to the ocean. Massive and immersive, the Sant Ocean Hall offers space for learning, respite, and reflection.

2. The Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals

This area is indeed three different galleries: one of geology, one of gems, and one of minerals. Calling the first hall a geology hall, however, hardly does it justice. As far as natural history is concerned, this is the hot rock and everything after: meteorites, the formation of tectonic plates (and the results thereof), how rocks are created, and how humans and rocks relate. Some of the best sections of this exhibit include

  • an explanation of meteorites, along with samples, and a great interactive about figuring out which rocks are Earth rocks and which are meteorites
  • a window overlooking the National Mall up to the Capitol above a discussion of the types of rock used in each building, as part of a larger DC-specific area of the exhibit right before the mock-up mines (which are also pretty cool!)
  • a number of interactive exhibits about earthquakes and volcanoes, including a run-down of each over the last fifty years, a real-time map of where they occur, and a database of all the volcanoes in the world with their histories and, in many cases, pictures

The minerals part is wonderfully set up for skimmers who just want to see pretty things and divers who want to look at the elemental structure and reasons for the colors and shapes of the shiny things. In his undergrad life, Boyfriend had a certificate in materials science, so this was an awesome exhibit to go through with him. Since the elements that comprise each mineral are listed, we spent a decent amount of time identifying the elements by their symbols and figuring out the effect of each on the mineral. For the swimmers, who like shiny things with a little information, the cases are set up by color, family, or crystalline shape, to allow these visitors to draw some conclusions simply by looking and connecting names.

And the gemstones? It’s the Hope Diamond and friends, and this gallery is packed. Fortunately, the Hope Diamond is on a rotating pedestal, so everyone gets a fighting chance.

Good for the Wee’uns

1. The Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals

What’s better than one taxidermied giraffe? TWO taxidermied giraffes! This exhibit, right off the rotunda on the first floor of the museum, is all about us–or at least our closest relatives. Mammals are posed in action and alongside environmental flavorings to give us a sense of the savannah, the North Pole, or an American forest, among others. More than the well-placed familiar animals is a boatload of information: why is a giraffe’s neck so long? Do vampire bats really suck human blood? Also, meet one of our oldest ancestors–Morganacudon, or Morgie for short–in a brief film about a mammal family reunion! One of my favorite parts is in the African savannah exhibit, which shows scenes at a watering hole via television screens on the floor in front of the (second) giraffe and (both!) zebras. Lots of text at kiddie levels here, plenty of benches for taking a break, and bathrooms nearby in the Sant Ocean Hall.

2. The O. Orkin Insect Zoo

EEEEW! It’s a giant BUG! Fortunately, it’s behind a glass case, along with a whole bunch of its closest friends, like spiders and centipedes and HUGE WALKING STICKS. Sweet. And they’re alive! Museums only have dead things in them, right? Not this one. See a beehive in action, watch a Black Widow spider spin her web, and push buttons on an interactive exhibit showing the bugs around your house (Never fear! This exhibit is sponsored by Orkin). The cases are at kiddie level, including some interactives that require you to be at kiddie height for them to work. There are small stools available for standing and looking up or sitting down and resting. Bathrooms are most easily accessed down one level immediately inside the Sant Ocean Hall.

3. Samuel C. Johnson Imax Theater

In the interest of expediency, budget, and focusing on the exhibits themselves, we skipped this one for now. But, for $8.75 for adults, or $7.25 for kids up to age 12, you can see such shows as “Deep Sea 3D,” “Dinosaurs: Giants of Patagonia,” or “Journey to Mecca.” These might be a little too much for the really young set, but older wee’uns will enjoy the animals and landscapes up close and huge. Bathrooms available nearby in the Sant Ocean Hall.

Temporary Exhibits

1.  Nature’s Best Photography Show (Open until May 2, 2010)

Boyfriend here. Nature’s Best Photography Show is a quick exhibit that provides a lot of Oohs and Ahhhs. High quality photos of penguins, flowers, and the rest of the natural world are blended with some comfortable benches to provide a memorable break between the gift shop and the Imax theater.

2. Since Darwin: The Evolution of Evolution (Open until July 18, 2010)

As much about the man as about the theory, this exhibit does a good job of explaining the social context into which Darwin brought his ideas, the way they were developed, and the ways they have developed since his time. Nestled between the Hall of Mammals and the Ice Age hall, Since Darwin helps frame its neighbors as much as it is framed by them. This one is worth seeing, and is worth seeing with its neighbors.

3. Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th-Century Chesapeake (Open until February 6, 2011)

Elissa again. This was one of my favorite exhibits the very first time I saw it with my buddies from the Museum Education Program.  Written in Bone explores what we can learn about the way people live from looking at their bones after they die. Part forensic mystery series of identifying 17th-century grave occupants, part exploration into how what happens to our bodies and what we put in them shows up on our bones, this exhibit provides a beneath-the-skin look at life today and yesterday. Attached is a Forensic Anthropology Lab where you, too, can solve forensic mysteries. One issue: you have to walk through the Western Civilizations exhibit to get here–and to get back to the rotunda, too–and that is certainly an exhibit that could use an update or a complete renovation, since the presentation style and text panels reflect a much older-style, less audience-focused school of exhibit production. Worth the walk to get to Written in Bone, though!