Did the Curator Really Do It? Popular Culture at the Smithsonian

Fiction writing about the Smithsonian Institution, by Courtney Bellizzi, 2013.

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? 

"The Simpsons" couch gag, courtesy of Global HD, 1991.

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?  

Filming of "Get Smart" episode at the Smithsonian, by Ken Rahaim, May 25, 2007.

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.

Nighttime filming of "Night at the Museum:  Battle of the Smithsonian", by James DiLoreto, 2008, pho

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. 

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