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Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh at A&I Building

The Smithsonian in Popular Culture


How is the Smithsonian, with its museums full of specimens and research labs full of scientists, portrayed by popular media such as movies, television and books?  What does this tell us about how people outside of the museum/research community perceive museum curators, the collections they acquire, and the research questions they answer?   Often, those perceptions of museums are very different from how Smithsonian staff think about themselves.  Smithsonian staff have been portrayed in mysteries, romances, dramas, comedies, and science fiction.  Are there themes we can see about what the public thinks goes on behind the scenes?  Are the Smithsonian’s back halls really populated by mad scientists and obsessive collectors?  Did the curator really do it in the lab with the candlestick?  How has this changed over time?  This website will introduce you to the Smithsonian and popular culture.  We are also interested in hearing from you about your favorite books, films or TV programs.

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.  There are some subtle differences in the portrayal of science, art, anthropology, and history.  Anthropology has been perhaps the most popular topic for fiction writers.  By asking the question, “Did the Curator Really Do It?” we’ll see how popular writers construct the characters of museum workers and research scientists and what they think of the Smithsonian’s world.  

Got an example of the Smithsonian in popular culture that you love? Let us know!