After leaving Virginia and spending a day at Monticello, our 2005 trip took us to Washington DC. We had three days there and decided to take one full day to visit most of the Smithsonian museums. You actually need two or more days to see everything these amazing museums hold. I found out that there are so many fascinating stories for each item and their significance, also the journey they took to find their final resting place at each of the museums. Here are just some of the stories behind the treasures.
The Smithsonian in Washington DC is the biggest museum complex in the world. It houses an astonishing 142 million items in 16 buildings around the US capitol. It is not surprising that there a numerous exhibits that hold intense stories and puzzling mysteries. Some of the biggest stories come from one of the smallest branches of the museum, the National Postal Museum. What this museum holds it not for the timid, the Hope Diamond, a priceless gem that is said to have a devastating effect on anyone that comes in contact with it. The diamond was given to the institution by Harry Winston, who was a jeweler in New York City. He decided to donate the gem to the institution in November of 1958 and mailed it to them, via registered mail. Winston had insured the diamond for a million dollars for its overnight trip from New York to Washington DC. It came by train to the mail station and James Todd was the mail carrier was assigned to deliver the Hope Diamond to the institution. He picked up the gem and delivered it to the National History Museum. Some people were surprised on how this precious gem was delivered, but Harry Winston said that is how he sends all his gems. This gem has had a legendary history, passing over 300 years from adventurers, to European Kings, and to wealthy collectors. The legend says that after the French adventurer who quickly removed it from the 17th century statue in India was mauled by a pack of wild dogs. Then when it was passed to King Louie the VXI of France, he lost his head. A 20th century American socialite wore it constantly and two of her children died while her husband went insane. As for James Todd, the mailman, within a year after delivering the Hope Diamond to the institution, his leg was crushed by a truck, his wife died of a heart attack, his dog died after being strangled on his leash, and James' house partially burned down. The curse devastated James life but it hasn't stopped the diamond from becoming the most popular attraction of the Smithsonian Museum. Also found in the National Postal Museum is a large group of the nations postal collection. In a safe is where a charred postcard is kept locked away and holds a strong and an interesting, sad tale. It was mailed from Germany in 1937 to an address in New York City and was written by Dein to his dearest friend, Hans. Dien sent the letter air mail on the Hindenburg which took off on May 6, 1937 from Germany. This pride of Nazi Germany was more than 800 feet long, and was four times the length of today Boeing 747. It crossed the Atlantic at 82 mph and contained 7 million cubic feet of explosive hydrogen gas. The arrival of the Hindenburg was delayed in Lakehurst New Jersey because of a thunder and lightening storm, but after it stopped, the Hindenburg caption decided to try and land. As it was coming in and someone noticed what appeared as a flash of light that appeared in seconds and realized that it was a fire. The Hindenburg went up in seconds with some of the passengers jumping out of it about 300 feet above ground. Of the 97 crew and passengers on board, 35 perished along with one person on the ground. What was amazing was that Hans postcard did survive the massive inferno. Hans upon receiving the postcard realized its significance and donated it to the museum. National Postal Museum holds many other treasures and stories equally as interesting.
The National Museum of Natural History attracts nearly 10 million each year. Everything about it is gigantic from the soaring rotunda to the elephant underneath which is the world's largest stuff mammal. The biggest monster mystery there is the giant squid. It is an elusive creature because no one has ever seen a living giant squid in its natural habitat. The one at the museum washed ashore near Boston in 1980, and when they stretched it out, they found that they had a small female, and the feeding tentacles were 28 feet long. There have been a couple of records of them being up to 60 feet in length and are deadly killing machines. When they shoot out those tentacles, pray is then brought to its mouth which contains a huge beak. It also has big massive eyes known to scare any sailor that came across its path. This museum holds the biggest collection of priced fish, about 8 million specimens, the largest in the world. Creatures have been collected from every ocean for over 100 years and can be found here having grown to unworldly shapes and sizes. Here you will find one of the strangest and oldest creatures on earth, a Coelacanth fish. This fish is showing the beginnings of arms and legs and some say is the missing link. This museum is also the home of the largest collection of dinosaurs. They used computer animation to recreate a five ton triceratops, bringing it back to life and its full sculptured of bones are on display.
In the Anthropology Department of this museum, there are thousands of human skulls in drawers and bones are stacked almost to the ceiling. This is the final resting place for some 30,000 human specimens from around the world and across the ages. On a slab lays the body of a well preserved mummy, all of 5 feet 5 inches, right down to his linen socks. He was an accidental mummy and was preserved by the electrolytes in the water near where he was buried, which slowed down his decaying.
The National Museum of American History houses the original star spangle banner flag that is being slowly restored by careful seamstress. During the War of 1812, the flag was flown at Fort McHenry, and was where Francis Scott Key saw it blowing at the top of the flagpole and inspired him to write “The Star Spangle Banner”. Over the next 100 years the flag was rarely displayed with pieces cut out of it, for various reasons. The first piece cut out was the 15th star and given to a defender of fort McHenry. His widow had requested a piece of the flag to bury with her husband. Today they are not trying to repair the flag but preserve it, even with the missing star, for future generations of Americans. Also in the National Museum of American History, the President’s room houses the uniform worn by George Washington, the desk used by Thomas Jefferson to write the Decoration of Independence, and a section on assassinations displaying Abraham Lincoln's hat. Many more items held, owned and used by our past presidents can be viewed in the President’s Room.
The National Air and Space Museum is where exceptional moments in aviation history come to life. The first manned flight, the first lunar landing, and the first plane to break the sound barrier, can all be found there. An interesting display of Amelia Earhart's collection can be seen, showing her leather flying suit, goggles and two way radio.
Perhaps the biggest mystery of the Smithsonian is why it came to be in the first place. The Smithsonian has many collections of bones but in the Smithsonian Institution Building, also known as The Castle, lays the special remains of human bones sealed in a crypt. They belong to James Smithson who made it all possible. James was a troubled British scientist and the last person you would expect to be responsible for such a huge American institution. In his hand written will, it stated that his humble fortune was to be donated to the American people. No one knew why because he did not know anyone in the United States and never once set foot in America. He died in 1829 in Italy far from home and even farther from America. His estate was turned into gold sovereign, put on a boat and travel across the Atlantic to Washington. His gold sovereign was melted down and turned into 2 dollar gold coins. It added up to be more than 250,000 of them, which was a very serious sum in those days. John Quincy Adams wanted an observatory while others wanted various types of museums and at the end it turned out to be all of those things. The mystery still remains to why Smithson left his fortune to a country he had never seen. He believed that by giving a gift that would increase knowledge would make life better for all humanity.
If you ever get to visit Washington DC, don’t forget to put the Smithsonian Museums on your ‘must see’ list. Give yourself enough time to see as much of the exhibits as you can and a whole day on just the paintings alone. There are so many more stories about the many unique and wondrous items that are in the rooms of each of the Smithsonian Museums, these were just a few. Paranormal activity has also been reported from those seeing apparitions, to unusual noises, unseen footsteps and eerie voices. Perhaps some of the past owners can’t give up their precious items.
(I have to mention the Travel Channel’s documentary on the Smithsonian for providing me with much of my information.)