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Off-Beat Washington DC: Oddities of the Smithsonian

Museum of Natural History by michpowell

The history of the Smithsonian Institute itself is unusual: as the institute’s namesake, James Smithson, did not even visit the United States during the course of his lifetime!

Smithson’s entire fortune of nearly 10 million US dollars when adjusted for inflation was willed to the United States shortly after his death to create an “Establishment for the increase and diffusion of Knowledge among men.”

That fortune went on to fund the Smithsonian Institute, comprising 19 museums and zoos, as well as 9 research centers located in Washington DC, New York City, Panama, and more!

With over 100 million artifacts in its possession, the Smithsonian Institute is easily the largest museum complex in the world.  With such a collection, it is difficult for every piece to be on display, and most are stored within the mysterious, restricted, Smithsonian vaults.

A short walk from the many hotels in Washington DC, the Smithsonian museums can be a dizzying experience for all visitors. Between seeing the full sized wooly mammoth at the Natural History Museum, spacecrafts at the Air and Space Museum, and the star spangled banner in the American History Museum; there are a few oddities that just might get overlooked during your visit!

Coelacanth in the Museum of Natural History

Coelacanth by Alberto Fernandez

Thought to have become extinct over 65 million years ago, the coelacanth was rediscovered in 1938 off the coasts of Africa and Asia, alive and well.  In the decades since, a large population of coelacanth has been found throughout the world in much surprise to the scientific community.

What makes the coelacanth unusual is that the fish contains many features not found in any other vertebrate in the world today.  Such oddities include extra fins set on muscular lobes that are thought to be the precursor to legs, a tube shaped heart, and a combined kidney.

Sometimes called the missing link, the coelacanth is one species that continues to perplex scientists even to this day.  Luckily for those who may not get to see one of these elusive creatures in the ocean, a fully preserved coelacanth is available for all to see in a prime display at the Natural History Museum.

The Crash Test Dummies in the American History Museum

Vince and Larry by the US Department of Transportation

Vince and Larry, more often known by the nickname The Crash Test Dummies, are a recent acquisition of the Smithsonian Institute; donated by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration in July 2010.

As the symbol of public safety during the 1980s and ‘90s, Vince and Larry were put into many hazardous situations during vehicle safety tests.   Studies of the damage they received were analyzed and returned to car companies and public interest groups to increase safety and consumer awareness.  The disastrous situations Vince and Larry were put through in the name of science have helped save countless lives in the process.

The advertising campaign for the test dummies became a huge success, with humorous clips of Vince and Larry being put in dangerous situations being the most widely acclaimed.  By the early ‘90s their popularity grew so far that a line of children’s toys and animated television episodes came out to promote public safety with the characters’ image as well.

The iconic duo will no longer be receiving their share of pain for the good of the nation, and instead will be safely on display in the American History Museum for many years to come.

The Original Kermit the Frog in the American History Museum

Kermit at the Show by isatori

While visitors to the American History museum have been thrilled by seeing Kermit the Frog for many years, a recent acquisition by the Institute is sure to be a great treat for fans of the iconic green Muppet.

Prior to being featured on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, Kermit originated in the 1955 series Sam and Friends with a slightly different design.   This iteration, as well as other famous puppets from the series-Sam, Pierre the Rat, and the precursors to Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch-will be joining Kermit at the Museum of American History starting in November.

Over the coming months the Smithsonian Institute will be increasing the presence of all of Jim Henson’s Muppet creations with their own dedicated exhibit to highlight the history of this iconic brand.  A treat for all Kermit, Muppet, and Sesame Street lovers alike!

More Oddities Than Can Be Listed

The preceding oddities are just a select few of the millions upon millions of items in the Smithsonian’s collection, which grows larger every year.  As the vast majority of these pieces are stored in the vaults of the Institute, you never know what might come out for a special onetime showing while you are visiting.   Who knows, maybe the elusive Soap Man, whose body literally was turned into soap upon burial, might even make an appearance!

Those who are intrigued by seeing him should take notice, however, as he is only let out of the vaults on rare occasions.  So be sure to check the Smithsonian’s Exhibition Calendar to see what unique sites are presently on display!   (Although a Soap Woman, who was buried alongside Soap Man, can be found on constant display at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.)

With donations coming in from around the world all the time, something offbeat and wacky is sure to tantalize just about any taste at the Smithsonian Museums while staying in Washington DC!

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