Urban Legends About the Smithsonian

Ever since its inception, the Smithsonian has been the subject of wild rumors about the Hope Diamond, Noah’s Ark and more

Many believe the Smithsonian Castle is haunted. The Institution's founder, James Smithson, is said to be among the otherworldly visitors. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives)

The Smithsonian Institution has been a part of the American landscape since 1846. Yet perhaps because of the breadth and eclecticism of its collections, people still aren’t sure exactly what the Institution does or know much about the objects it contains. With that in mind, we would like to take this opportunity to clear up a few lingering misconceptions.

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Myth #1: The Hope Diamond is cursed.

Fact: It isn’t. A coincidental string of unfortunate events befell its handlers.

Backstory: The so-called curse originated as a marketing ploy devised by jeweler Pierre Cartier to entice Washington, D.C. socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean to buy the gem. Cartier created a fantastic story about the jewel’s provenance and how the stone brought grief to anyone who handled it. McLean purchased the jewel—an acquisition reported in the New York Times on January 29, 1911, with a recounting of Cartier’s dark tale. Over the years, other publications picked up the story, helping perpetuate the legend about the stone. McLean’s later misfortunes—her husband ran off with another woman and later died in a sanitarium, a car struck and killed her son and her daughter died of a drug overdose—contributed to the perception that the stone was cursed. After McLean’s death, the diamond came into the possession of jeweler Harry Winston, who later donated it to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, in 1958. The jewel was sent to the museum by registered mail and delivered by postal worker James Todd, who suffered several misfortunes the following year—a broken leg, the deaths of both his wife and dog and the loss of his house in a fire. Todd took it in stride. “If the hex is supposed to affect the owners,” he said, “then the public should be having the bad luck [not me]!” While the Smithsonian was pleased to receive the jewel—the centerpiece of its mineral collections—the public was less enthusiastic. “If the Smithsonian accepts the diamond,” one person wrote, “the whole country will suffer.” Museum curators, however, dismiss the idea of the stone bringing bad luck. The Hope Diamond has attracted millions of visitors to the Smithsonian over the past 50 years.

Myth #2: The Smithsonian mounted an excavation to find Noah’s Ark at Mount Ararat.

Fact: The Smithsonian has never conducted archaeological work on Mount Ararat; in fact, no one knows whether the mountain is indeed the site of Noah’s Ark.

Backstory: According to the Book of Genesis, after the flood, Noah’s Ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. This description has led many people to focus their search for the Ark on modern-day Mount Ararat (also known as Mount Masis and Agri Dagi), in Turkey. Furthermore, aerial photographs of the site reveal a strange formation, known as the Ararat Anomaly, which some speculate is the Ark.

Myth #3: A Smithsonian curator named Harvey Rowe working in the antiquities department turned down a so-called prehistoric artifact for the Smithsonian’s collections.

Fact: The Smithsonian does not have anyone on staff by that name, let alone an antiquities department.

Backstory: In the mid-1990s, a creative graduate student crafted a letter under the name Harvey Rowe, curator of antiquities, rejecting the claims of an amateur paleontologist who was convinced he had discovered signs of prehistoric life in his own backyard: a Malibu Barbie doll. (A version of the letter appears at http://www.snopes.com/humor/letters/smithsonian.asp.) The letter began circulating on the Internet in 1994 and quickly spread, tickling funny bones all over cyberspace.


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