When British scientist James Smithson died in 1829, he left his fortune to the United States, a country he had never visited, for an “Establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge.”
Smithsonian Institution museums have taught the public about quantum physics and Asian art, planetary geology and global warming, Indiana Jones and Kermit the Frog.
Wait a minute. What were those last two?
Last week, the National Museum of Natural History opened “The Truth about Crystal Skulls,” inspired by the blockbuster summer film “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” And the Smithsonian’s International Gallery opened “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World,” an exploration of the work of the man who gave us “The Muppet Show.”
Was this, um, what Smithson had in mind for the “increase & diffusion of Knowledge?”
These shows follow February’s “Recognize! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture” at the National Portrait Gallery, in which LL Cool J and Ice T took their places on the august institution’s walls, alongside the likes of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.
This is clearly not your father’s stodgy old Smithsonian Institution.
The Smithsonian museums on the Mall and elsewhere across the District have always been among the prime tourist attractions in the nation’s capital. The diverse array of museums, including the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Gallery of Art, send visitors home knowing more than they did when they arrived. Perhaps an even bigger enticement is their free admission.
As Washington has attracted more tourists, though, it also has attracted more informational entrepreneurs. The number of new museums has exploded in the past few years, and many of them aim to provide more entertainment than education.
There’s the International Spy Museum, which allows patrons to pretend they’re James Bond, and Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. The Newseum, a high-tech and perhaps self-indulgent paean to a vocation, is just a couple of blocks from the Mall. The most recent addition is the National Museum of Crime and Punishment, which also houses a television studio for Fox’s crime-solving series “America’s Most Wanted.” These have all become popular destinations, despite admission charges of up to $20.
That’s a lot of flashy new competition for the D.C. tourist dollar. You have to wonder: Do the Smithsonian’s new entertainment-related exhibits mean “the nation’s attic” is feeling some pressure to stay relevant?
“All of our exhibits in some way reflect the collections-based research conducted by Smithsonian scientists, here in this museum,” said Randall Kremer, director of public affairs at the National Museum of Natural History. “But as anyone at the Smithsonian will surely tell you, science, by its very nature, is entertaining. It is up to us to communicate that excitement through our public programs.”
He is not the only Smithsonian spokesman to say the institution’s exhibits should take care of two “e” words. “It’s entertaining, yet educational. And it’s inspirational,” said Jennifer Schommer, Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) assistant director of public relations for the Henson exhibit, which will travel to at least 10 cities.
The “Crystal Skull” and Henson exhibits neatly illustrate both the opportunities and the pitfalls of coating the educational pill with entertainment sugar.
The Smithsonian’s crystal skull was sent to the museum anonymously in 1992. Though it is not what it was purported to be - an Aztec relic carved centuries ago - it’s an impressive piece of rock nonetheless. Smithsonian research indicates the 10-inch-high skull carved out of one 30-pound milky piece of quartz was probably made in the 1950s.
Why is the skull - a fake - going on exhibit now, after 16 years? “Mostly because we’ve been doing a lot of research on it,” said anthropologist Jane MacLaren Walsh.
Yes, but there’s another reason: The fourth outing of Indiana Jones has gotten millions of people curious about the story behind the film.
Just don’t expect to get that back story at the exhibit - it consists of the skull and just two placards. In the rush to get the skull on display, the museum didn’t devote much effort to organizing and diffusing the contextual information that might have given the object meaning and interest.
A documentary highlighting the similarities to Indiana Jones is now airing on the Smithsonian Channel, but not all that many Americans get this channel.
“Jim Henson’s Fantastic World,” on the other hand, is an example of how a museum can entertain and enlighten at the same time.
The prolific American puppeteer, who died in 1990 at the age of 53, created such lasting series as “Sesame Street,” “The Muppet Show” and “Fraggle Rock.” The exhibit offers much more than a bunch of puppets and videos, though.
Jim Henson Co. archivist Karen Falk, the curator of the show, said she wanted to mix the well-known with the little-known. So while you’ll see Kermit as soon as you walk in, you’ll also see Mr. Henson’s clever 1957-58 paintings “Conceit,” “Melancholy” and “Hilarity.”
A section on his experimental film “Youth ‘68” contains a letter he received from a soldier stationed at Fort Polk: “You have exposed for the nation my own anguished schizophrenia and that of so many others like me.”
Clearly, Mr. Henson wasn’t just a children’s entertainer.
The show offers a fascinating glimpse into Mr. Henson’s working methods. He was a frugal artist. His ideas from the 1950s, when he was a student at the University of Maryland getting his start in local television, he reused decades later.
He was also persistent. “The Muppet Show,” which began in 1976, came out of an idea he had in 1960.
“Jim Henson’s Fantastic World” is informative, entertaining - and inspirational.
“An artist or filmmaker or child can see how simple his drawings were,” Ms. Falk said. “They might think, ‘Maybe I could do that.’”
James Smithson might not have been able to picture a puppet made out of a mother’s coat and a cut-up pingpong ball at the institution to which he gave his name and fortune. But Kermit fits in just fine.