The Smithsonian Institute: a Review
Spending four days in Washington D.C in May 2017, I had the opportunity to visit some of the museums and their exhibits. This review will explore my experience of some of the Smithsonian treasures. The Smithsonian Institute is a series of nineteen individual museums, located primarily in Washington D.C, which explore the art, history and culture of some of the peoples of the United States of America. Founded in 1846 by the U.S government, the Institute is named after British scientist James Smithson, who died in 1829. After bequeathing much of his fortune to his nephew, the money ultimately came into the hands of the U.S government, where it was to be used “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge”. Construction began on the first building – “the castle” – in 1849; since then, the Institute has grown exponentially, with over 154 million items held within its buildings. It also has almost 200 affiliate institutions, including the National American Jewish Museum in Philadelphia. Open 10am-5pm every day, the museums attract over 30 million visitors annually – of which I was one this spring of 2017.
Arriving at the National Museum of American History at 9:30am, I was glad I had arrived early. The building was huge, and there was already a queue forming – evidently, it was popular. Upon entering, I was almost overwhelmed: the museum occupied three floors, with other activities in the basement, covering topics ranging from the changing food on an American’s plate to the Vietnam War. There was even an exhibit on the history of the First Ladies.
Unfortunately, I didn’t make it around the whole museum. However, I was fascinated with the areas that I managed to visit. The section on the First Ladies was extremely well put together: it identified trends of thought and style over the period since the Revolution, and gave an important insight into the minds of some of the most powerful female minds in American history. Particularly interesting was the exhibit of the First Ladies’ inauguration dresses – from Martha Washington to Mic
helle Obama, it was striking to see how fashion has changed for the upper echelons of society.
I also found the museum to be accessible to people of all ages – there was a number of interactive and audiovisual exhibits throughout the building, as well as the usual written and visual sources. My only criticism of the building would be to say that, though mentioned, the role of women in warfare was underrepresented, and I would have liked to see an exhibit on women’s suffrage. The museum is currently undergoing some renovations on the upper floor; perhaps this will bring women a greater voice within American history.
Subsequently, I visited the Museum of the American Indian. Opened in 2004, the purpose built building is circular in shape, with a wide atrium visible from all floors and staircases. This museum houses approximately 825,000 artefacts from over 12,000 years of history, from the various Native American tribes’ histories. Particularly interesting was the prominent atrium exhibit of a chief’s motorbike from the mid-1920s. This exhibit immediately challenges popular conceptions and images of natives as how they lived in the 19th century, thereby questioning ahistoric views of different cultures.
Due to time constraints, I could only visit three exhibits, two of which were located on the third floor. One considered the role of Native American men (and, more recently, women) in American wars throughout the late 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Through a series of visual and written sources, the exhibit showed the important role played by Native American men and women in their country’s conflicts. It served to challenge the notion that Native Americans shun the dominant culture; it was particularly interesting to discover that, proportional to their population size, the Native American servicemen and women outnumbered almost every other ethnicity.
I then visited an exhibit which charted the spiritual beliefs of some of the tribes, with eyecatching and absorbing displays throughout the room. Important to recognise, as the museum did, these beliefs were not shared by every Native American tribe; however, I feel that the museum did an excellent job at delineating the various tribes’ differing views. The exhibit strongly challenged any possible notion of simplifying history to suggest that all Native Americans tribes believed in the same spirits in the same way; indeed, even neighbouring tribes often differed hugely. I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Native Americans’ superstitious beliefs, and found the exhibit to be very accessible to all ages and abilities.
The final exhibit I visited was one on treaties made by various Native American tribes; some were intra-Native American treaties, whereas some were made with outsiders. The exhibit starts from the early colonial period and continues through to the present day. It makes strong use of a combination of written, visual and audiovisual sources, with many diary entries available to hear aurally. It was very striking to see the nature of the treaties made, particularly during the height of the white Americans’ migration west, and harrowing to see the blatant disregard of the U.S government towards upholding their side of the treaty. Particularly effective was a quote on the wall just moments before the end of the exhibit: “Most Americans live on treaty land.” This really brought it back down to earth just how frequently the white American government had lied and gone back on their promises to their Native American counterparts. Also powerful was, “Great Nations, like great men, should keep their word,” which was the very last exhibit on the way out of the exhibit.
The American Indian Museum serves to show the perils of thinking that native culture was wiped out in assimilation attempts from the late 1800s. it shows an evolving, dynamic group, and charts some of their histories over the past twelve thousand years. I highly recommend this museum to anyone who finds themselves with spare time in Washington D.C.
A third museum within the Smithsonian Institute is the History of the U.S Postal System, which is located next to Union Station and directly south of the U.S Capitol Building. This museum charts the history of the postal system, with a variety of exhibits showing the changes to the postal system within America. Though an IT issue meant that none of the interactive exhibits were working on the day I visited, the museum still offered an interesting chance to explore the issue of postage. The first exhibit I visited was on the history of the postage stamp; it offered a complete, if slightly US-centric, evolution of the thought behind (and purpose of) the postage stamp.
I was particularly interested with what appeared to be a central exhibit on the changing nature of postal delivery systems. From a bike to a modern van, from an early plane to a modern delivery plane, it was striking to see how much delivery automobiles have changed over the course of a century. It also made a nice change to actually be able to get into these vehicles, as opposed to the vehicular exhibits of many other museums.
Overall, I have a very favourable impression of the Smithsonian Institute. Having managed to visit ten of the nineteen museums, I am convinced of their success in achieving the aim to “increase and diffuse knowledge”. That every museum is free opens up this knowledge to anyone in the vicinity of Washington D.C, and allows the information to permeate society. It was particularly striking to see a group of primary school aged students from California on a school trip. It showed the importance of the history and culture locked within the walls of the Smithsonian museums, and highlights once again the accessibility of these museums to all. I would highly recommend the Smithsonian Institute for anyone who visits Washington D.C or New York City.
Written by Victoria Bettney