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Smithsonian in Popular Culture

The Smithsonian in Popular Culture


How is the Smithsonian, with its museums full of specimens and research labs full of scientists, portrayed in movies, novels, television, and videogames? Smithsonian staff and the iconic buildings they work in have been portrayed in mysteries, romances, dramas, comedies, and science fiction. Often, the ways that museum curators, explorers, and lab researchers and what they do are represented very differently from how Smithsonian staff think about themselves. How do these portrayals of the Smithsonian help us understand how the public perceives our work and what 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 library with the candlestick? How have these perspectives changed over time?

The Smithsonian, perhaps more than any other museum or research complex, 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. In all of those depictions, subtle differences emerge in the portrayal of science, art, anthropology, and history. Anthropology has been perhaps the most popular topic for fiction writers. By looking at movies, television, novels, and videogames and asking the question, “Did the curator really do it?,” we’ll see how popular fiction writers construct the characters of museum workers and research scientists and what they think of the Smithsonian’s world.

This website will introduce you to the Smithsonian in popular culture. We’d also like to hear from you about your favorite novels, films, games, or television programs. Got an example of the Smithsonian in popular culture that you love? Let us know!


The Smithsonian in Books Shortly after it was founded, the Smithsonian and its staff began to appear in fiction writing, reflecting popular ideas of what this new institution was. References to the Smithsonian appeared in biographical novels, satires, murder mysteries and adventures, ranging from a few words to complete novels set at the Smithsonian. The first work we have found that portrayed the Smithsonian was Mark Twain's 1869 travelogue, Innocents Abroad, which presents a caricature that will soon give the United States National Museum the nickname, "The Nation's Attic." The largest subset of novels to utilize the Smithsonian are murder mysteries. The Smithsonian's museums, quirky research staff, and endless collection storage areas have provided local color for many stories. Some authors come to the Smithsonian for background research but don't actually mention the Institution, such as Patricia Cornwell, the mystery writer who consulted with Smithsonian staff while developing her forensic anthropologist, Kay Scarpetta, who appears in twenty novels.   The Smithsonian in Movies The Smithsonian has long been portrayed in movies ranging from science fiction, romance, and adventure, to historical fiction. In the 1950s, science fiction was one of the first genres to use the Smithsonian's distinctive image. Science fiction films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) utilize the Smithsonian's buildings as backdrops for alien invasions. Space ships flew over the Smithsonian Castle and through its towers. Though Sputnik had yet to launch, space flight was on the minds of Americans and the Smithsonian was center stage for this fantasy. Later films have ranged from romances such as Chances Are to dark murder mysteries like Silence of the Lambs. The twenty-first century has seen significant growth in films portraying or set at the Smithsonian. Several of these were highly entertaining, and quite successful, adventure films – perhaps reflecting a more positive image of the Smithsonian. Perhaps the best-known recent example where the Smithsonian was center stage was in Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian.   The Smithsonian in Television The Smithsonian often plays a small role on the small screen, and those references are revealing about popular stereotypes of the Smithsonian. For many television series, the standard destination for something old and dilapidated is, of course, the Smithsonian. In other series, the Institution is where everyone went on 8th grade school trips. The Smithsonian appears regularly in crime and spy series, such as Bones and Get Smart which were set at the National Museum of Natural History.   The Smithsonian in Video Games and Other Formats Recently the Smithsonian has begun to appear in video games, often as a backdrop, but sometimes as the central focus of the game, such as in the Hidden Expedition games and Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian. The games are filled with action, spies, and puzzles that must be solved.