Dan Brown’s Smithsonian: Fact or Fiction?

Dan Brown’s Smithsonian: Fact or Fiction?

Smithsonian Institution Building, "The Castle" (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian)

Towards the beginning of his new thriller The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown introduces his main character Peter Solomon, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Peter's phone number is mentioned twice in two pages (a detail that struck this reader as odd). And if by chance you should happen to call the number, as I did, your call will go directly to a hauntingly realistic voicemail—"Hello. You've reached Peter Solomon…."

Typical Dan Brown.

The bestselling writer is notorious for blurring the boundary between fact and fiction, and his latest book is no exception. The Smithsonian plays a dominant role in the plot. A major character works at the Smithsonian's Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland. The true-life address of that facility is even revealed. And he includes brief forays into the architecture and history of the Castle and the story of founder James Smithson.

So naturally (the magazine has schooled me well in fact checking), I thought I'd look into some of the details included in the book. How accurately did Brown describe the Smithsonian?

Fact or fiction?

1.Dan Brown asserts that the Museum Support Center, a storage center for objects in the Smithsonian collection not on display, houses more pieces than the Hermitage, the Vatican Museum and the New York Metropolitan, combined.

Fact: The MSC houses 55 million objects and specimens. Some quick sleuthing on the web sites of the Hermitage, the Vatican Museum and the Met reveal that the total number of objects in their collections, combined, is less than 10 million.

2. In the story, the MSC is a zigzag-shaped building and includes five connected pods—each larger than a football field.

Fact: Each pod is three stories high, and in addition to the pods, there is a wing with labs and offices. The pods are referred to by number, as Brown does in the book, but he took some liberties with their uses.

3. The "wet pod," with its many jarred specimen, houses over 20,000 species.


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