Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Smithsonian stories

Last week I mentioned in passing that the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History is my favorite museum in the whole world. That prompted a nice e-mail from Pamela Caragol Wells, the producer of a new series called "Stories from the Vaults" that takes viewers behind the scenes at the Smithsonian museums. It's hosted by Tom Cavanagh, an actor known for his roles on "Ed" and "Scrubs."

I've been a huge fan of the Smithsonian ever since my first visit to Washington, D.C., some 30 years ago, when I was in high school. I've been to almost all of the museums more than once, and I've loved them all. While the American History Museum is closed for renovations until next summer, they're all worth repeated visits. I can't think of a better way to spend a day in our nation's capital.

Until that first visit, I'd viewed museums as somewhat somber, stuffy places, filled with ancient paintings and sculptures. But the Smithsonian, especially the American History Museum, changed all that.

I'm a big American history buff, and I love the way the museum tells the story of this country from so many different vantage points, from the lives of presidents and celebrities to the struggles and dreams of average, everyday people, as it did in an exhibit called From Field to Factory that documented the migration of African-Americans from the South to the North before World War II. And best of all, like all the Smithsonian museums, admission is free.

My first visit to Washington came during the Bicentennial, and there was a terrific exhibit at the American History Museum called "A Nation of Nations" that took visitors through all of the various cultures that together make up the United States. I've always loved the collection of pop culture artifacts, like Dorothy's ruby red slippers from "The Wizard of Oz," Kermit from "Sesame Street" and Jerry Seinfeld's Puffy Shirt. Plus, the museum hasn't shied away from highlighting the serious parts of American history, including the fight against polio and the fight for civil rights.

One visit I made a decade ago will always stay with me. I'd just come from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and literally the first thing I saw when I walked into the American History Museum was a section of the Woolworth's lunch counter, from Greensboro, N.C., where four African-American college students sat down on Feb. 1, 1960, and asked for service. That simple, courageous act helped ignite the movement challenging segregation throughout the South. Here it was 15 years after the Holocaust and we still hadn't understood the evil of racism. It was a sad and powerful reminder that the struggle against bigotry is an ongoing one. I'm glad that this important artifact from American history, pictured above, is preserved at the Smithsonian.

The Smithsonian has many fascinating, quirky, important tales to tell, and I think "Stories from the Vaults" is a great way to make them come alive. The show airs on the Smithsonian Channel HD, which is available on DirectTV HD. While I don't have that system, I watched clips of the show on YouTube. The topics include Phyllis Diller's joke file, (50,000 of them in an immense steel filing cabinet), flesh-eating beetles, the first videogame, the marine biology collection donated by author John Steinbeck, nature photographer Ansel Adams, taxidermy and ants.

The show is a really interesting look at the back rooms where visitors don't normally venture. Caragol Wells says the idea is to be funny and informative, and "Stories from the Vaults" definitely is both. Cavanagh is a witty, affable host as he chats with the scientists and curators to get the story behind the story of artifacts in the collections. The clips brought back many great memories of hours spent walking through the Smithsonian. I can't wait to go back.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

I'm with you Esther - this is also my personal favorite museum, and I love museums. It truly is America's attic...and much more.

Esther said...

I'm glad we agree! I also love museums, and I've been to some wonderful ones. I think what sets the American History Museum apart is that it gives you a great sense of what this diverse country is all all about. It's not an easy thing to do, and I think the Smithsonian succeeds to a great extent. And best of all, it's free.

I'm really eager to see what the renovated American History Museum will look like when it reopens next summer.

I forgot to mention the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festivals that take place on the Mall each summer, highlighting a particular country or region or culture. I've only been once, but I really enjoyed it.