The Smithsonian Institution is routinely given the nickname “the nation’s attic.” This moniker is not surprising considering the Smithsonian holds an estimated 138 million objects and artifacts, of which only about 2 percent are on display. This eclectic collection includes the ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz,” the gowns of first ladies, a chunk of Route 66, space food, shrunken heads, a part of Plymouth Rock, Einstein’s pipe and the stuffed remains of white rats used by the Soviets during the Space Race.
This is an institution that carefully tags, numbers and preserves America’s history for any visitor to discover and explore. However, because of the collection’s incredible size, visitors would be wise to restrain themselves to the Smithsonian’s most interesting artifacts.
One highlight of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is its collection of objects from D.C.’s most famous residents — the presidents. The Smithsonian displays Theodore Roosevelt’s original teddy bear, one of George Washington’s tents from the Revolutionary War, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chat microphone, one of Harry Truman’s bowling pins and Bill Clinton’s saxophone.
The Smithsonian even exhibits some of the darker mementos of past presidents, like the top hat that Abraham Lincoln allegedly wore to his fatal night at Ford’s Theatre and the cup William McKinley drank from moments before he was shot. Yet the must-see of these artifacts is a display of locks of hair from the first 14 presidents, from Washington up to Franklin Pierce.
The next stop is a forgotten memento of Georgetown — Stubby. Now stuffed and displayed, Stubby was once the canine mascot of the 102nd Infantry 26th Yankee Division in World War I. He started his career at a Yale training camp where he would drill with the new recruits. His owner, J. Robert Conroy, smuggled Stubby to Europe where the dog was allowed to stay because he was able to salute the commanding officer with his paw.
Stubby became a valuable patrol against gas and German spies. His adventures continued when his owner headed to Georgetown and Stubby became the football team’s mascot. His signature trick was nudging the football around the field with his nose. This old Hoya can now be seen at the National Museum of History proudly wearing his blanket and all of his medals.
The next highlight is a centuries-old self-acting automaton monk that can still be seen continuing its holy work 400 years later. King Philip II of Spain commissioned this monk in 1562 as repayment to God for the miraculous cure of his son and heir, Don Carlos. The intricate machine was made in honor of a monk that came to the prince in a vision after his recovery. When wound up, the monk starts to silently chant, nod his head and move his arms in various devotional gestures.
However, one of the most notable displays, featured in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, is a secret hiding in plain sight. The giant panda that is displayed in the Hall of Mammals is not, in fact, a panda.
This deception started with Hsing-Hsing, one of the giant pandas given to the United States by China during Nixon’s visit in 1972. When Hsing-Hsing died in 1999, the Smithsonian faced a problem. It feared that mounting the stuffed body of this very political panda would offend China. So, the giant panda was kept frozen at the Smithsonian. However, visitors still see Hsing-Hsing in a reimagined form. Ken Walker, an expert taxidermist, used Hsing-Hsing as a model to make a new bear mold named Thing Thing. Not a single part of the model comes from a panda. Thing Thing’s fur comes from two black bear skins, one of them bleached, resulting in a model indistinguishable from that of an actual panda — fooling many visitors to this day.
The Smithsonian Institution’s mission to preserve the important aspects of American history and culture is a massive undertaking. Thus, visiting all of the institution’s collections is an exhaustive feat in itself. However, even a short visit to any Smithsonian museum is enough to discover the diverse collection of wonderful artifacts the museum holds.
Blair Kennedy is a rising junior in the College. D.C. Uncovered appears every other Monday.
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