The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
Have you ever noticed that the Smithsonian was mentioned in a novel, TV series or film? Do you have a favorite book about the Smithsonian? Are you partial to The Simpsons couch gags about the Smithsonian? Are Smithsonian forensic anthropologists really like Bones? What actually happens in Smithsonian museums when the public leaves, the curators finally go home, and the collections have the museums to themselves? Did that curator really commit the murder in the conservation lab with the acid-free cloth tape?
We’ve been looking at how the Smithsonian, with its museums full of specimens and research labs full of scientists, is portrayed by popular media such as movies, television and books. Public perceptions of museums and researchers can be very different from how Smithsonian staff think about themselves. Over the years, Smithsonian staff have been portrayed in mysteries, romances, dramas, comedies, and science fiction. What does this tell us about what the public thinks goes on behind the scenes? Spy novels have their protagonists disappear into the dark halls at the Natural History Museum. Movies portray secret collection storage areas under the National Mall. How have these ideas about the Smithsonian developed and changed over time?
The Smithsonian Institution, perhaps more than any other museum, has been the setting for fiction writing ranging from work by Gore Vidal to the TV series Bones to films including Night at the Museum. Its buildings, iconic American landmarks, often set the scene for books, television and films, while characters with ties to the Smithsonian appear in many genres. There are some subtle differences in the portrayal of science, art, anthropology, and history. But, anthropology has been perhaps the most popular topic for fiction writers. On our new website The Smithsonian in Popular Culture you can explore the different novels, episodes and movies that involve the Insituttion. You can even ask, the question, "Did the Curator Really Do It?" and discover how popular writers construct the characters of museum workers and research scientists and what they think of the Smithsonian's world.
What is your favorite book, TV program or film about the Smithsonian? We would like to continue to expand the website and are looking for input from you. We invite you to send information about your favorite program or book, movie or film to us at SIHistory@si.edu, or leave a comment below.
- The Smithsonian in Popular Culture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
On July 15, 1971, President Richard Nixon announced that he would travel to the People’s Republic of China in an effort to improve diplomatic relations with the previously unrecognized government, the most adorable result of which was the gifting of giant pandas Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling to the National Zoological Park. We’ve told this tale before in The Bigger Picture blog post "Panda-monium!" but have prepared a slide show of the events surrounding their arrival as well as a few pictures of the cubs settling in to their new digs. See below to check out First Lady Patricia Nixon welcoming the pandas to their new home, visiting Chinese zoologists touring Smithsonian museums, and of course the stars of the show, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling being their precious panda selves.
- Panda-monium!, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 11-009 - Smithsonian Photographic Services, Photographic Collection, 1971-2006, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Happy Birthday USA!
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. . .
Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 (Courtesy of the National Archives)
On June 20, 1911, construction of the brand new United States National Museum, now the National Museum of Natural History was finally completed. This was an accomplishment that was nine years in the making.
The United States National Museum was originally housed in the Arts and Industries Building until the collection grew too big for the space. As a result, in 1902, Congress passed legislation authorizing the creation of a new building across the National Mall to house and display collection materials. It took nearly two years for a plan for the new museum to be drawn up and approved, but on June 15, 1904, Secretary Samuel Pierpoint Langley broke ground on the site, and construction was officially underway. The foundation was dug by hand, with the occasional use of steam-powered back-hoes, and dirt was removed from the site by horse-drawn carriages. The first stone was officially laid on the foundation on August 21, 1905, more than a year after construction started. Even though construction was not complete until 1911, the museum opened to the public on March 17, 1910. In the 1930s, the creation of two new wings was approved, but that idea did not come to fruition until the 1960s because of a lack of funding. The museum as it looks today was completed in 1965.
Click through the slideshow to watch the building come to life!