Think of the closing scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, when a wooden crate containing the Ark of the Covenant is wheeled into a gigantic Washington warehouse crammed with thousands of similar crates containing (we presume) relics, treasures and potent mysteries of the ages.
That is, essentially, what the Smithsonian Institution is — a vast storehouse of marvels. The difference is that we can see what’s inside this real-life mystic warehouse (at least a small part of it, anyway).
The Smithsonian network of museums and research facilities (and even the U.S. National Zoo) clustered in Washington, D.C., is the world’s largest such congregation of art, curiosities, weapons, machines, tidbits, doodahs, natural phenomena, arcane scribblings, historical artifacts, treasures, scientific innovations and just plain weird stuff — oodles of weird stuff.
The various branches of the Smithsonian house an estimated 137 million —137 MILLION — objects, of which less than 1% are actually on display in Washington or at affiliated museums or in travelling displays at any one time. That’s up from about 100 million — 100 MILLION — artifacts only 30 years ago. (Smithsonian staff did the first complete inventory of artifacts in the early 1980s, which is when they came up with the 100 million figure; they’ve been keeping track of additions ever since.)
That 1% still adds up to 1.37 million items, and they range from the cursed 45.5-carat Hope Diamond — “the most famous diamond in the world” — to shrunken heads (although none are on display these days), from ancient Roman surgical instruments to early artificial hearts, from moon rocks to fossilized dinosaur poop (called coprolite), with bongos, banjos, behemoths, beetles, Beatles, bangles, ballet slippers, bomb shelters and Byzantine icons thrown in for good measure.
There are hundreds of items of George Washington memorabilia alone in the Smithsonian’s museums, from uniforms, pistols, swords and camp gear to a clump of Washington’s hair and even a piece of his mahogany coffin.
But, no, the Smithsonian does not have one of the four sets of George Washington’s wooden teeth (ivory, actually) known to exist. However, an institution affiliated with the Smithsonian — the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore — does.
The Smithsonian is, in short, the world’s greatest pack-rat collection of the physical manifestations of human curiosity, desire, experience and accomplishment.
And it’s mostly free for the viewing, thanks to a bequest from an eccentric English scientist who died in 1829, never having set foot in the United States. Yet when James Smithson’s only blood relative died childless a few years later, a special clause in his will kicked in:
“I then bequeath the whole of my property … 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.”
So, based on that vaguely worded but noble instruction in the will of the dotty illegitimate son of an English duke, Smithson’s $500,000 estate (worth about $15 million in today’s dollars) ended up in the hands of the U.S. Congress — which fiddled and faddled for a decade while the money (invested badly in dud bonds) quickly evaporated.
By the time Washington got its act together to create the Smithsonian Institution in 1846, Smithson’s money was pretty much gone and an embarrassed Congress had to ante up taxpayer money to get the show on the road (pushed hard by former president John Quincy Adams). So, although the institution is called Smithsonian, its financial foundation is actually Taxpayerian. Today the Smithsonian Institution’s annual budget is about $1 billion — $1 BILLION A YEAR — and it’s mostly all still taxpayers’ money.
I haven’t been to the Smithsonian in years but I was doing some research on another matter (James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room, if you must know) and it reminded me what a weird and wonderful phantasmagoria the Smithsonian is (because the Smithsonian has the entire beautiful, elaborate Peacock Room in its Freer Gallery and it will be going on display next month).
So here’s a look at some of the treasures and oddities you’ll find if you ever get down (or up or over, depending on your point of view or geographic location) to Washington to poke around some of the 19 museums that make up the public face of the Smithsonian Institution there.
You want airplanes? The National Air and Space Museum has everything from the Wright Brothers’ 1903 Flyer (credited with the first powered, controlled flight of a heavier-than-air machine) to Charles Lindburgh’s Spirit of St. Louis (first solo flight across the Atlantic) to the Enola Gay (the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima) to the Mercury Friendship 7 space capsule (in which John Glenn circled the earth three times in 1962) to the recently retired space shuttle Discovery.
The Smithsonian didn’t get the Wright Brothers’ Flyer until 1948 although the Wrights had offered it as early as 1910. That’s a long and fascinating story with twists and turns including being inundated in the Great Dayton Flood, a soap opera of jealosy, counterclaims and lawsuits and a two-decade-long jaunt to England, where the Flyer was stored in an underground vault with Britain’s other treasures during the London Blitz. But that’s a story for another time.
In the end, the Flyer was turned over to the Smithsonian for the token payment of $1 but the Institution had to sign a contract with many restrictive clauses, the most controversial of which is one in which the Smithsonian essentially agreed never to support any claim against the Wrights’ status as having achieved the first powered, controlled flight in history:
“Neither the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, nor any museum or other agency, bureau or facilities administered for the United States of America by the Smithsonian Institution or its successors shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight.”
There was a fairly valid reason for inserting that clause (involving the Smithsonian’s prior support for another, since-refuted claim of first flight) but it also means that you can never put any trust in what the Smithsonian Institution has to say in the ongoing debate about who actually flew a motorized aircraft for the first time.
By the way, a bit of wood and wing fabric from the Wright Flyer was taken to the surface of the moon by the crew of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969.
The National Museum of American History alone has more than 5,000 musical instruments, from Stradivari violins to Dizzy Gillespie’s B-flat trumpet to Van Halen’s 2007 Frankenstein guitar.
There’s Samuel Morse’s original set of telegraph keys, some early Alexander Graham Bell telephones, Catherine the Great’s hunting rifle, Michael Jackson sequined glove (and Marilyn Monroe’s gloves and Phyllis Diller’s gloves), sports cards, cash registers, Apple II computers, Titanic life preservers, bubble gum machines, the top hat worn by Abraham Lincoln the night he was shot by John Wilkes Booth, and somewhere in the vicinity of 115,000 bird eggs.
There are even 155,976 items that pop up when you type the word “Canada” into the Smithsonian databank of 8 million entries, from 19th-century farm equipment to 1930s tokens for the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.
(Speaking of which, the Smithsonian database lists 32 records for “dildo” — all of them related to the town of Dildo, Newfoundland. And, just to set the record straight, Newfoundland’s Dildo gets its name from an old word for a thole pin oarlock on a row boat or a small belaying pin on a sailing ship.)
But I want to look at some of the quirky things in the Smithsonian vault that don’t always make it to the top of the list but do, in their own way, illuminate the more interesting aspects of human existence.
For example, the one-piece red bathing suit Farrah Fawcett wore for the 1976 poster that made her famous (and sold up to 20 million copies — nobody really knows exactly how many and the number is constantly climbing because the poster is still for sale today).
Farrah was an aspiring actress at the time but was not yet one of Charlie’s Angels. The photo shoot by Bruce McBroom was done at the pool of the home Fawcett shared with then-husband Lee Majors. The red one-piece was Farrah’s own swimsuit, one-piece to cover a childhood scar on her abdomen.
McBroom shot more than 1,000 frames and from those Fawcett herself picked the one that became the poster. (The blanket in the background, by the way, was an old throw rug from McBroom’s car.)
The bathing suit was donated to the Smithsonian in 2011 by Fawcett’s later husband, Ryan O’Neill, two years after her death from cancer.
Two years after the poster came out, Farrah Fawcett was big enough — and her mane of blonde hair was envied enough — to have her own brand of shampoo on the market. And yes, the Smithsonian has a 1978 bottle of Farrah Fawcett Shampoo too.
Of course the Smithsonian has Dorothy’s ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in 1938′s The Wizard of Oz.
The Smithsonian’s ruby slippers (hand-sewn burgundy sequins and rhinestones, actually) are one of four pairs known to still exist of the eight to 10 pairs that were made for the MGM production.
The Smithsonian’s pair are size 5B, which means they were made for Judy Garland. Other ruby slippers are size 6D, made for Judy’s stand-in, Bobbie Koshay. And the Smithsonian shoes are well-worn, probably meaning they were the primary pair Garland used in her dance sequences.
(By the way, the magic slippers in L. Frank Baum’s book were silver, but MGM changed them to ruby red so they would show up better against the yellow brick road in Technicolor.)
The Smithsonian ruby slippers were bought at auction in 1970 for $15,000 by an anonymous bidder who donated them to the SI in 1979. The shoes are now estimated to be worth $3 million, the most expensive Hollywood memorabilia in existence.
The Smithsonian has Ray Bolgar’s Scarecrow costume from The Wizard of Oz too but, really, who cares about ratty old rags when you can see Dorothy’s ruby slippers.
Remember we were talking about John Glenn’s 1962 triple-orbit of the earth in Mercury Friendship 7? Guess what this is:
It’s John Glenn’s pee bag from that flight.
John Glenn wasn’t the first human in space. That would be Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who orbited the earth on April 12, 1961. Glenn wasn’t even the first American in space. That was Alan Sheppard, who shot into space less than a month after Gagarin. But Glenn was the first American to orbit earth, so he got superstar treatment.
He also got something else the other guys didn’t have — the pee bag. Sheppard had asked for one but the NASA engineers on the ground told him he didn’t need one. Of course he ended up urinating inside his spacesuilt and short-circuited his biosensors. And — also of course — Glenn ended up getting the pee bag (officially called a “urinary collection device”) as a result.
Glenn didn’t need to use it after all, so it arrived at the Smithsonian Institution in pristine condition.
As space travel became more sophisticated, so too did space underwear. Above is the catch-all diaper/undergarment Sally Ride wore when she blasted off in the Space Shuttle Challenger on June 18, 1983 to became the first American woman to leave earth’s atmosphere.
But as space shuttle missions became more common, the astronaut equivalent of adult diapers became more casual too. Most of the time in space, shuttle crew members were able to wear their own underwear. They only wore accident-prevention diapers for takeoffs and landings.
As you can see, the NASA engineers gave them a variety of styles from which to choose. I’m sure they’re much snugger and work much better than commercial adult diapers available to the ordinary bladder-challenged consumer today — or maybe this is one more case where advances in space technology had direct payoff in daily life, like Teflon and micrcomputers.
The there’s Ivan Ivanovich (Russian for John Johnson, or John Doe) a flight mannequin used to test the SK-1 pressure suit and Vostock spacecraft before Yuri Gagarin’s flight. Ivan has never been removed from the spacesuit in the 52 years since his successful 1961 test flight.
Speaking of mannequins, how about the original crash test dummies (their heads, anyway) used by General Motors for car safety research. Their names are Vince and Larry.
In the same vein, the Smithsonian is also home to Star Wars droids C-3PO and R2-D2 (the ones used in 1982′s Return of the Jedi).
Since we’ve already mentioned Raiders of the Lost Ark, I should point out that the Smithsonian has one of Indiana’s Jones’ fedoras and a leather jacket, donated by Lucasfilms in 1989, and one of Indy’s bullwhips, donated in 1999.
The Smithsonian also has the original model of the Starship Enterprise from the 1966-69 TV show (over 3 metres long) and a phaser prop from the first Star Wars movie. If the Enterprise were real, it would weight about 190,000 tonnes and be more than 300 metres long.
In 2010, Jim Henson’s family donated the original Kermit the Frog and nine other puppets that appeared on an early TV show called Sam and Friends in 1955 on Washington’s WRC-TV.
The original Kermit is a little more lizard-like than the one that made it big on Sesame Street in 1969 (the Smithsonian has one of those too). His body was made from an old coat Jim Henson’s mother was throwing out and his eyes were made of pingpong balls.
Some of the other Sam and Friends puppets include the original versions of Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch (under different names) and Henson’s oldest surviving puppet, Pierre the French Rat.
And then there’s Seinfeld’s puffy shirt. Jerry Seinfeld was on hand at the Smithsonian Institution in November 2004 for the official handover of the “puffy shirt,” the ruffled, pseudo-piratical blouse Jerry inadvertently agreed to wear for a television interview. The episode aired Sept. 23, 1993 and is considered one of the series’ classics. Co-creator Larry David, who wrote the script (which was also donated to the Smithsonian), says it’s one of his favourites.
Unbelievably there is only one real “puffy shirt,” the one now in the Smithsonian (although not currently on display). Designer Charmaine Simmons said she was asked by the producers to come up with a ridiculous buccaneer-style shirt and decided to make “the most uncomfortable, unwearable shirt you could find” based in part on a blouse her mother had given her in the ’70s.
But, because the puffy shirt was a one-episode wonder and not expected to reappear on the series, only one version was made. At the end of the episode, when a bum is seen begging handouts in a puffy shirt, it’s the same one Jerry was wearing earlier.
The episode did, however, start a real puffy shirt craze. And, equally unbelievably, you can still buy your very own knockoff of Seinfeld’s puffy shirt online 20 years after the episode aired.
Tony Hawk, the first skateboarder to land a documented 900 trick (two-and-a-half midair revolutions), donated his childhood skateboard to the Smithsonian last June. Granted, Hawk’s childhood didn’t last very long (or maybe its the longest childhood in history) since he turned pro at age 14.
But before going on the pro circuit, this is the board Tony Hawk rode — a 1975 Bahne handed down from his older brother Steve.
The Smithsonian has chef Julia Child’s kitchen. The entire thing, including cookbooks and hundreds of utensils. Child, who was the star of a dozen TV cooking shows between 1963 and 2000, donated the kitchen from her house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the Smithsonian in 2001 when she retired and moved to California. Three of her TV shows were filmed in the kitchen.
And speaking of moving to California, the Smithsonian has a 50-foot section of Route 66, the iconic U.S. freeway built in the 1930s from Chicago, Illinois,to Santa Monica, California.
The Smithsonian’s section was constructed in 1932 in Oklahoma. Although Route 66 ceased to exist as a national U.S. highway in 1985, the Smithsonian acquired its section in 2000 when the Oklahoma Department of Transportation was tearing up the original Route 66 to put in a new roadbed. Oklahoma truckers moved the section to Washington as their contribution to keeping the memory of the great highway alive.
Not as long as the section of Route 66 but still impressive is an 18.5-foot beard grown by Hans Langseth, originally from Norway. When Hans died in 1927 in North Dakota, his relatives cut off his beard and donated it to the Smithsonian. Well, at least 17.5 feet of it. They left a one-foot beard on old Hans because it just wouldn’t be right to put him in his grave clean-shaven.
And they’ve got a stuffed carrier pigeon named Cher Ami that was awarded medals of bravery for flying 12 dangerous missions for the U.S. Army during World War I. His final mission saved the remnants of the 77th Infantry Division, the “Lost Battalion,” trapped behind enemy lines near Verdun in 1918. Cher Ami managed to make a 40-km flight in 25 minutes to redirect Allied artillery fire in the nick of time before collapsing (the bird, not the artillery). Cher Ami had lost an eye and a leg and had a bullet hole through its chest but survived to retire with great honour and in birdly luxury. Cher Ami was stuffed after death and given to the Smithsonian.
Speaking of France, the Smithsonian has a stone from Joan of Arc’s dungeon from whence she was led in 1431 to be burned at the stake. Although I was amazed they would have such a thing, it’s really not that rare.
When American George Frederick Kunz learned in 1912 that the ruins of the Rouen castle in which Joan had been imprisoned were being excavated to make way for a new building, he organized the purchase of the 229 blocks — 18 tons — of stone that had formed the dungeon.
Kunz gave one chunk to the Smithsonian, but most of the pieces are built into the pedestal of a New York City statue honouring. So, I guess, if you were recklessly bold and handy with a chisel, you too could have your very own piece of Joan of Arc’s dungeon.
(I have pieces of the Berlin wall and the Toronto history mural that used to be on the back wall of the Sun building, so I don’t think I’ll be trying my luck in NYC.)
But amid the strange items housed in the Smithsonian Institution is the strangest collectible of all — James Smithson’s body.
Smithson had died in 1829 at age 64 in Genoa, Italy and he was buried there in the graveyard of a Protestant chapel overlooking the Mediterranean.
In 1903, Alexander Graham Bell — then a regent (member of the board) of the Smithsonian — went to Italy with his wife to supervise the exhumation of Smithson’s remains. The dusty bits of body and other remains were packed up and shipped back to the U.S. with James Smithson arriving on U.S. soil for the very first time on Jan. 20, 1904.
Smithson’s remains were placed in an elaborate sarcophagus in a room designated the Crypt in the Smithsonian Institution’s headquarters, the Castle.
And there Smithson remains today, just one more of the 137 million objects accumulated over the past 160-plus years by the institution that bears his name.