Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Smithsonian Castle, More Than Just a Pretty Facade

One of the few disappointing (OK, perhaps more confusing than disappointing) parts of our Disney Weekend was when our friend's 5 year old wanted to go into Snow White's Castle. It was so obviously there, and yet as any adult knows, it's just a facade. You can't go in the castle I tried to explain, it's not real. Luckily, rides and food easily distracted from this point of confusion.

That's pretty much how I've always thought of the Smithsonian Castle: an impressive looking building, but little more than an enhanced tourist info booth inside.

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While jogging by the castle this last weekend, I decided to take a few minutes and confirm my assumption from above. And of course, I learned just how wrong I was to dismiss the castle.

First off, I walked in and was immediately struck by this scene:

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Holy smokes, there's someone buried in the castle. And it's none other than Mr. Smithsonian himself, James Smithson. His story is downright remarkable: he was an active scientist, who for reasons not fully explained, pulled off this little trick:

Toward the end of his life, under a clause in his will, he left his fortune to the United States, a place he had never visited, to found in Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

A bold move, but one that has paid off. After all, there's been approximiately 22.8 million visits to his institution in 2015 alone.

After checking out the crypt, I found the information area that I expected. But I also found a sign leading to the Commons Gallery, West Wing. Being the curious type, I had to take a look. What I found truly surprised me. The Commons Gallery hosts the America's Treasure Chest exhibit. This exhibit is a sort of sampler for the entire Smithsonian. In the space of one large gallery, you can see everything from African Art to Zoological specimens. It really is classic Smithsonian, housing remarkable finds like a piece of the Hindenburg, Brian Boitano skates, a drinking fountain labeled Colored and lots more.

If you've got a very limited time in DC (say you're on a business trip), hitting this one gallery may be far more effective than trying try run from Smithsonian to Smithsonian, catching highlights. I could also imagine it would be the ideal place to take kids. Not only is relatively compact, but it would be a great place to play the What's your favorite item on display and why? game. It certainly would show kids that there's more to DC museums than a big elephant, some space paraphernalia and giant pandas (not that there's anything wrong with those things!).

Next time you're on the Mall, if you haven't had a chance to truly explore the castle, take 30 minutes and do so. And while you're at it, explore the gardens adjacent to it. Spotting the Monkey Puzzle Tree alone makes it worth exploring this green space.

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