James Smithson and Beyond

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Billy Chapman


Angels & Demons

James Smithson and Beyond

            The Smithsonian Museums, in Washington, DC, are some of the most educational and informative institutes and museums in the country and the world.  Not only do they have, what seems like endless amounts of information, but they are the storehouse of our history. James Smithson, a scientist and philanthropist, originated the idea of the Smithsonian Institution and started the museums that still exist today. The United States government originally funded these museums and continues to administer and fund what is now the world’s largest museum complex. Most of the museums are located on a strip known as the National Mall in Washington, DC and there are many different research programs and research facilities. With all of this information, the Smithsonian has had to address many issues throughout the museums. As a public museum the Smithsonian is intended to inform the viewers of the information presented in historical context. This has led to some controversies in the museums and actions were taken to stop the dissatisfaction with historical accuracy. There have been different complaints and issues about the Smithsonian’s decisions to present information in the museums.

Dan Brown uses the Smithsonian Museum Support Center throughout The Lost Symbol as it relates to Katherine Solomon’s field of work and it is the home to all of her experiments. The SMSC is also key to the novel because of all the historical information and artifacts that are stored inside the different pods. Without the Smithsonian Museums the United States would be at a loss for historical artifacts and The Lost Symbol would not be the same.

            James Smithson was born secretly in 1765 in Paris when his mother decided not to let out the information that she gave birth. His mother, Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie was from England and his father Hugh Smithson was the Duke of Northumberland. He grew up in France for most of his childhood until moving to London with his family. After receiving a master’s degree from Pembroke College, Smithson worked in the field of chemistry in London and shortly after a year was inducted into the Royal Society, as the youngest member. Smithson was, “a founding member of the new Royal Institution of Great Britain, an organization devoted to ‘diffusing the knowledge, and …teaching… the application of science to the common purposes of life.’” [1] Smithson was always interested in learning more and helping educate the public. When Smithson’s brother died, he wanted his nephew to change his name to Hungerford, so he would be eligible for his fortune if anything were to happen. Smithson’s will stated that, “his estate to his nephew and that young man’s future children, and he added a peculiar last clause to his will, stipulating that if his nephew died without heirs, legitimate or illegitimate, his estate was to go to the United States ‘to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.’” [2] Smithson devoted his life to always learning more and seeking out new knowledge and shortly after he altered his will, Smithson died in June, 1829, at 64 years of age. An American author heard of the death of Smithson, while reading a European paper and published his will in the United States. It seemed unrealistic that the United States would get the estate knowing the Smithson’s nephew was in his 20’s, but six years later Smithson’s nephew died of unknown causes. The United States inherited the property and Andrew Jackson, president at the time, notified Congress of this inheritance and after some debates Congress accepted the gift, the estate valued more then half a million dollars, determined to carry out Smithson’s will.

            Congress was unsure about what to do with the property and how the inheritance would increase the knowledge of man. They debated creating a museum, a library, a lab and even a university. This debate lasted about eight years until President James Polk decided to create a museum under the name The Smithsonian Institution. This was just the start for the Smithsonian that has now transformed into the world’s largest museum complex with nineteen museums and many different research facilities. The museum’s mission is to help educate and increase the knowledge of the public, which is why the museums are free of cost to enter and are open everyday of the year except Christmas Day. It all started with James Smithson’s idea to help increase knowledge in men, as he was always searching for answers, and has transformed into the complex known as Smithsonian. This is much greater then Smithson’s original vision but, nonetheless, he would be more than happy with the central idea that is still continuing from his original thought, in his will. Originally the first secretary wanted the museum to be solely focusing on scientific research, but after donations and funds from the government it expanded to many different collections.

            The Smithsonian has had many copyright issues with all of its collections and information on its website and in its museums. This has led to a lot of criticism from the American public and the numerous visitors. Some people believe that the Smithsonian has too many copyrights and is keeping everything from the public, rather then pushing for an, “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” The Smithsonian insures that all of its information throughout the museums, Internet and research facility are all geared toward its mission statement and the copyright is to only help promote Smithsonian rather than letting people stealing work. As long as it is for non-commercial uses then the information on the website is allowed to be used, educationally or personally, as long as credit is given when needed.

The different museums are constantly moving artifacts and collections around and store a lot in the basements of most buildings. This has caused a little bit of a debate regarding the valuables and objects on display in the museums. Most of the major historical valuables and items are constantly on display, along with the items related to leading breakthroughs in history. Millions of people each year come to see the main exhibits, but the little known facts and exhibits are the ones that are frequently remembered. There are always the most popular major exhibits on display, such as the first flight by the Wright brothers and Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, but the smaller exhibits are also receiving attention. Some writers and authors feel that there are not enough minor exhibits at the museums and that the Smithsonian needs to do a better job at changing and administering such exhibits. Many people have different perceptions on some of the essential events in history and information regarding different histories. This has led the Smithsonian into some controversies that have included some heated debate.

Along with the major copyrights and commercial uses, the Smithsonian has been involved in two major controversies regarding exhibits in museums. The “Enola Gay” display at the National Air and Space Museum and the “Seasons of Life and Land” exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History. Enola Gay was the fighting fortress that executed the first atomic bombing, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, during World War Two. There was an exhibit about Enola Gay in 1994 at the Air and Space Museum, but after many concerns from the American Legion and the Air Force Association, this exhibit was changed into a display and no longer an informative exhibit. The airplane remained in the museum but only included a caption discussing the history of the model, of the airplane. Originally the exhibit spoke about the strength and importance of the atomic bomb from the American point of view, and emphasized the power of the bomb and the deaths caused by it, without any historical context. Changing the exhibit into a display was the National Air and Space Museum’s way of honoring the exhibit and taking a less-biased stance. The American Legion and the Air Force Association approved of the decision to keep the airplane on display while removing the historical information and bias.

Another major controversy involved the “Seasons of Life and Land” exhibit that was documented photos from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There were many reports about the exhibit and how the Smithsonian handled the research and its portion on the exhibit. Shortly after these reports the Smithsonian removed the exhibit from one of the main displays and placed it in a less prominent space. This was due to the “scientific uncertainty” regarding the photography from the wildlife exhibit and led to the criticism and removal of the exhibit. This exhibit brought negative attention to the Smithsonian because historians and writers started to speculate whether the Smithsonian was accurate on most of its exhibits and information.

Since the “Seasons of Life and Land” was inaccurately described in its museum, as was Enola Gay, some people got the wrong impression immediately following the controversies. The Smithsonian is working to improve its public image and resolve the issues that currently interest the museums. Recently writers have criticized the museums for the lack of information and constant repetition year in and year out. Some people who visit the different Museums are tired of seeing the same material on display each year and would like to see a change. The Smithsonian is working hard to improve the look of its different museums and also is working to improve the rotation of the different collections and artifacts that are on display and in exhibits. In 2006 the Smithsonian signed an exclusive deal with Showtime, to provide the network to have access to files and footage of the museum. This initiated a cautious displeasure with the Smithsonian because many other companies and filmmakers no longer had free and open access to the Smithsonian. Not only did filmmakers not benefit but the Smithsonian received a lot more criticism and even as it lied to change the negativity surrounding the name, Smithsonian.

After the controversy regarding film coverage of the Smithsonian, the second “Night At The Museum” movie was filmed at the Smithsonian in 2008-2009. Many other filmmakers were granted access to the Smithsonian as a way to help improve the image and eliminate some of the negativity regarding the name of the Smithsonian. There are reports that Dan Brown’s third novel, The Lost Symbol will be turned into a movie and the Smithsonian will be involved in the motion picture.

The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown relies on the Smithsonian because, not only are a couple buildings used, but the buildings have a big role in the novel. Katherine Solomon is a scientist who is in the field of noetic science and is one of the most prestigious and well-known scientists in the world. She bases her studies on her intuition and drive to seek more knowledge, new ideas and answers.  Katherine’s brother Peter Solomon, who is a 33rd degree Freemason and the Smithsonian secretary, helped her studies and experiments by providing her with a place to conduct experiments. “But none of this was why the Smithsonian secretary, Peter Solomon, had introduced his sister to the SMSC three years ago. He had brought her to this place not to behold scientific marvels, but rather to create them. And that was exactly what Katherine had been doing” (The Lost Symbol, 34). The Smithsonian Museum Support Center, or SMSC, is home to roughly 98 percent of the collections that goes on display at the various museums throughout the United States. The variety is so great that only two percent can be on display at a time and the rest is stored at the SMSC.

Katherine conducts all of her experiments in “POD 5” or the Cube as she nicknamed it. Peter gave it to her three years prior to the setting in the novel to support her research. “’Okay, relax … it was my own money, and nobody’s using Pod Five right now. When you’re with your experiments, you’ll move out. Besides Pod Five has some unique properties that will be perfect for your work’” (The Lost Symbol, 44). Peter was only helping Katherine by providing her with more support and access to materials for her research. In The Lost Symbol, SMSC has five different pods that provide thousands of collections and artifacts and a research pod for Katherine to research and conduct experiments. The security is pretty heavy at the SMSC as there is an on duty security guard who monitors the cameras and a guard shack outside restricting access to the building.

The Smithsonian Museum Support Center is in fact a real place, that does exist and its function is accurately described in The Lost Symbol. The SMSC was an integral part of The Lost Symbol because Katherine spends most of her time there conducting research, and that is where she meets up with Dr. Abaddon. In The Lost Symbol, Brown is accurate with his depiction of the SMSC, as it does provide all of the different collections and artifacts that are not currently on display at the Smithsonian museums. Along with the accuracy of the function of the building, the address and the different pods in the building are both accurate. Katherine provides Dr. Christopher Abaddon with the actual address of the building. Brown has often been criticized for historical inaccuracy even though his novels are fiction. Many different groups have been unhappy with Browns inaccuracy because of the bad image it brings to the groups, such as the Catholic leaders, who were unhappy with the portrayal of the Church in Angels & Demons. But he has been careful in his last novel to be as accurate as can be.

            The Smithsonian Museum Support Center was completed in 1983 and is located in Maryland, not on the National Mall. The collections and artifacts are primarily from the National Museum of Natural History but there are also items from each of the museums. The SMSC is close to four and a half acres and has about 500,000 square feet of space. There are roughly thirty one million objects contained inside the zigzag structure, which contains multiple pods. Each pod contains three floors and is about the size of a football field, 100 yards, and is connected by “The Street” which is the long corridor that separates each of the pods and the offices and labs. There are different climate controls for each of the rooms as some contain artifacts such as totem poles and tree trunks, while others range from mosquito collections to skulls of elephants from Theodore Roosevelt’s trip on an African safari. Along with the artifacts, there are millions of documents that are preserved from different centuries and are kept in dark, cool (temperature) places. The SMSC acts as a storage center and cycles information from the museums to the SMSC. Everything is constantly moving, and when museums undergo renovation, most times a portion of a second museum will open a mini-museum of the museum that has been shut down for renovation. For example, when the National Museum of American History, or NMAH, underwent renovation in 2007, the Smithsonian opened up a small exhibit of some of the major hits of the NMAH at the National Air and Space Museum for viewers to still get a taste of what the National Museum of American History was still about, even though it was under construction. [3] The SMSC is opened to researchers and scientists but is not open to the American public like every other Smithsonian Museum.

            The Smithsonian is an important part of the American culture and could not be in a better place than Washington D.C. Most people in the United States will visit Washington D.C at least once in their life to visit the history of the country and learn more about the United States. Part of this journey is going to any one of the Smithsonian museums and learning more about different histories in the US and the World. The Smithsonian museums provide information that is essential to learning about the history of American culture, the history of America and the advancement of the nation. Along with most of the National Monuments and buildings throughout DC, one should go to the Smithsonian museums to learn more but also for the experience. It is hard not to visit one any of the museums if you are a tourist in DC and it only adds to the experience. In The Lost Symbol the Smithsonian Museum Support Center has an important role, as it is Katherine’s lab but also her escape from Dr. Abaddon. The connection Dan Brown makes is that he chooses the SMSC because Katherine is doing her research at the Smithsonian and making advancements in her field of science, learning new things everyday, and that was the goal of James Smithson, to provide further knowledge. The Smithsonian museums are very educational and provide information to help increase the knowledge to the public and without them, America’s history would not be as carefully preserved and presented.



The Smithsonian Museum Support Center (SMSC)


[1] http://newsdesk.si.edu/history/James_Smithson_biographical_info.pdf


[2] http://newsdesk.si.edu/history/James_Smithson_biographical_info.pdf

[3] http://newsdesk.si.edu/factsheets/msc_factsheet2009.htm

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