WASHINGTON – The Smithsonian Institution is marking its 175th anniversary this year, and it expects to celebrate later this year with a futuristic exhibition that includes a robot to help prevent loneliness and a sail for deep space travel.
The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum complex, consisting of 19 museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoo.
Established by the U.S. Congress in 1846, the Smithsonian was the brainchild of James Smithson, a wealthy English chemist who left his estate to the United States for the establishment of an institution in the nation’s capital “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” With that broad concept, said Smithsonian historian Pamela Henson, the institution began collecting a vast array of items ranging from artwork to insects.
The Smithsonian has mostly been closed during the coronavirus pandemic in the past year with no reopening date set so far. More than 22 million visitors from around the globe came to the museums and zoo in 2019.
Despite being closed to the public, many of the museums’ collections can still be seen virtually.
“Especially during the pandemic, this has allowed people all over the world to plug into the Smithsonian to look at the exhibits, even if they never make it to Washington,” Henson told VOA. “The Smithsonian has about 154 million items which come from a variety of sources, but we don’t buy many of them.”
The National Air and Space Museum is the most visited Smithsonian museum.
Former astronaut Alvin Drew remembers the first time he went to the museum, then newly opened, in 1976. He was in high school in Washington and skipped class to go with some classmates.
“It was a gorgeous experience,” he recalled. “Real things that made history and I never got over that.”
Years later, at the International Space Station, his dream of being an astronaut came true.
“The Milky Way is a river of stars that don’t twinkle because there’s no air,” he said, and the Earth looks like a ‘blue beachball” with mountain ranges and continents flying by at high speed.
Besides space suits, rockets and missiles, the more than 60,000 objects in the collection also include the first airplane flown by the Wright brothers in 1903. Another highlight is the Space Shuttle Discovery that flew 39 missions.
Jeremy Kinney, associate director for research and curatorial affairs, said visitors can learn about space toilets and what it’s like to live on the International Space Station.
“We also have the model spaceship used in the Star Trek TV series,” he added.
Addisu Tesfaye, originally from Ethiopia who now lives in Alexandria, Virginia, said the museum is fascinating.
“Airplanes are hanging from the ceiling and there are objects from the Apollo 11 spaceflight when humans first landed on the moon,” he said.
At the National Museum of Natural History, the dinosaur and fossil section, which includes a fossil skeleton of a ferocious Tyrannosaurus rex, is popular, as are the mineral and gems collection with the blue Hope Diamond, one of the world’s largest and most valuable diamonds.
The museum also contains oddities.
“We have a collection of whale ear wax that whalers used to collect,” said Michael Lawrence, assistant director for exhibits. There is also the skeleton of Robert Kennicott who was a collector for the Smithsonian in the 19th century.
“He’s part of our collection. A few years ago, his family donated his bones for study and to be on display,” Lawrence said.
The National Museum of American History is filled with Americana, including an exhibit on the invention of the video game. There is also the popular display of inaugural gowns worn by U.S. first ladies. The museum has begun a new collection with items associated with the coronavirus pandemic.
David Allison, recently retired associate director of curatorial affairs, wrote a history of the museum titled Exhibiting America that can be downloaded free of charge. He recalled one of the more unusual items, a late 1800s talking doll created by Thomas Edison, the inventor of the lightbulb.
“It was a disaster,” Allison said, “It was ugly and heavy,” and it was difficult to create sound in something so small.
The National Museum of African American History & Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian focus on two groups that have played a major role in American history.
Becky Haberacker, spokesperson for the National Museum of the American Indian, said the exhibits examine the history of Native Americans up to the present day.
“These stories are often told without Native perspectives and we’re working to change that,” she said. She added, the museum tries to educate visitors about the different Indian tribes, “including that not all of them lived in teepees.”