There’s a Castle in Washington, D.C.?

Little known fact: the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. is celebrating 168 years! It’s true, as you can see in This Day in Geographic History.

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This beautiful brick building in Washington, D.C., is nicknamed “the Castle.” The Castle is home to the visitors’ services and administrative offices of the Smithsonian Institution. Photograph by Charles Martin, National Geographic

The Smithsonian Institution is a great place to visit. Museum entry is free, and the museums are open 364 days of the year (only closed on Christmas)! Exhibits have something for everyone, and the people who work there are brains worth picking . . .

Not everyone can work where they wish, but you might be surprised to know where you can volunteer, and the amazing things you can be a part of.

For almost 10 years, I’ve been a behind-the-scenes volunteer at the Smithsonian Institution, working alongside some incredible people. Volunteers act as docents, welcome museum guests, and help scientists and researchers. While the exhibits contain a ton of cool things to look at, the inventory is actually much, much larger than what you get to see. One volunteer project involved a group of us pinning bugs for the department of entomology — that may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you should check out the Insect Zoo! I spent almost two hours wandering the insect archive, looking at tiny insects in vials that were waiting to be examined. I’ve also had the chance to create fossil replicas in the FossiLab (currently closed for renovation) at the National Museum of Natural History. Just some of the things I never thought I would get the chance to do.

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A close-up of a trilobite fossil (Phillipsia sp.) embedded in rock, displayed on a black background.Trilobites are extinct Paleozoic marine anthropods related to crayfish. Photograph by Bianca Lavies
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Try to hold one of these in your hand! Photograph by Joseph H. Bailey

Each volunteer has a story, as many are retired scientists themselves. So, ask them your burning questions! You just may get more of an answer than you were planning for. Many are simply passionate about what they’re working on: one volunteer enjoyed hiking in Virginia to look for fossils, and was full of stories about discoveries in our own “backyard”; another made jewelry, so she had the skills needed to make fossil replicas. All museum volunteers (especially at the Smithsonian) do have something in common: they want to share what they know, while continuing to learn.

Are there museums where you live? Find out if any behind-the-scenes programs exist to learn more about the museum and how it operates. Your family might get to do something special. Ask the docents why they work or volunteer there; they might have a great story to share.

If you find yourself in Washington, D.C., you won’t regret time spent at either the Smithsonian Institution, or with us at the National Geographic Museum. Whether you’re curious about Mars, or want to see our view of the world: we’re still celebrating National Geographic’s 125 years of exploration!

Thanks for reading, and if you get a night at a museum — be sure to tell us the tale.




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