Smithsonian Channel // 2008 // 189 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ian Visser (Retired) // October 24th, 2008
The Smithsonian Institution was founded from a donation by British scientist James Smithson more than 150 years ago. Its purpose was the "increase and diffusion" of knowledge, and today the institution is one of the world's foremost centers for natural and human research. Located in Washington, DC, the Smithsonian's facilities attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
The numbers associated with the Smithsonian are mind-blowing. 19 museums and institutions, 625,000 birds, 31 million insects, 5,000 instruments, and 11,000 orchids are just a small segment of the 136 million artifact collection. Not to mention the 4,500 employees that form the backbone of expertise necessary for the research, preservation, and archiving needed to make the entire operation run like clockwork.
But the vast majorities of the collections in the Smithsonian have never been displayed to the public and never will be, either because of their value, their rarity, or for lack of available display space. Hosted by actor Tom Cavanaugh (Ed), the seven episodes of the series Stories from the Vaults takes viewers behind the doors of the museum to find out what secrets lie undiscovered by the public.
The episodes include:
Famous Donors -- An examination of some of the famous contributors to the Smithsonian including President Teddy Roosevelt (animal samples), author John Steinbeck (marine life), and comedienne Phyllis Diller (her collection of 50,000 jokes) and what their contributions tell us about them.
Superlatives! -- The Smithsonian is full of superlatives: biggest, faster, first. Cavanaugh takes the viewer through some of the superlatives common to the museum, including taxidermy (most misunderstood job), a Stradivarius cello (best instrument), and the bible (smallest book).
No Place Like Home -- The concept of "home" means many things to many different creatures. This segment examines such diverse notions of home as recreational vehicles, the teepees of the American Plains Indians, and the suits of American astronauts.
Beauty -- What is beauty? By examining natural and man-made examples of beauty, we learn the secrets behind ants, women's underwear advertising, and orchids.
Firsts -- The Smithsonian is a place of firsts: the first plane used for passenger flight, the first light bulb, and the first video game (hint: it's not Pong). Examining a collection of these firsts reveals the inventions and innovations that have contributed to the American experience.
Life after Death -- Death is an essential part of what the Smithsonian does. A cultural examination of death, this segment considers burials and preservations, the creation of skeletons for exhibits, and the "dead letters" in the U.S. Postal Service.
Random? -- Cavanaugh examines what appears to be a random assortment of items kept by the Smithsonian: zoo animals, pianos, and the works of Ansel Adams. But there is a connection running through the examples that paints a larger picture of our place in the world.
I'm not sure it is possible to have a series examining the Smithsonian's collections that could ever be touted as "complete." Even after watching the 189 minutes of this release it becomes obvious that with 136 million objects available, no documentary, series, or examination could begin to fully encompass the holdings of the museum. The numbers, as mentioned, are mind-boggling: how does one begin to display a collection of 11 million photographs, anyway?
That being said, even the amount of material featured across the seven episodes of Stories from the Vaults feels a bit incomplete. The shows move very fast, so after only a few minutes we are off taxidermy and onto teepees, and then whisked away again to spend time with sloth bears and whale bones. Host Cavanaugh lends a breezy and easy-going mood to the proceedings, but after a short time his jokes start to wear a bit thin and one begins to wish there was less joking around and more effort spent on communicating information to the audience.
The other shortcoming in the show is the camera work, which puts the viewer through an ordeal of pans, sweeps, dives, and zooms that is both disorienting and distracting. I'm not sure why the show felt the need to "sex" things up a bit with this type of direction, considering the subject matter is pretty interesting to begin with. After a while it becomes less noticeable, but the effect is jarring in the initial minutes of viewing.
These issues aside, Stories from the Vaults does provide an inside-look at many compelling exhibits and collections. Watching this release made me want to visit the Smithsonian on my next vacation, so the impact has certainly been made. History buffs and kids alike should get a kick out of the series, which has plenty of cool stuff like flesh-eating maggots and bird taxidermy for those with a taste of the weird and wonderful.
The anamorphic widescreen image is rock solid, with no defects and a nice palette of rich colors on display. Many of the scenes are shot in low-light environments or indoors, but there is no indication of any resulting problems. The audio is clear and without issue, and English subtitles are provided on all episodes.
The only extras are commercials for other Smithsonian Channel shows.
If you can tolerate Cavanaugh's antics and have a taste for the historical, Stories from the Vaults will prove to be worthy of your time. The show definitely leaves the viewer wanting more, so here's hoping we will see more episodes in the future.
Review content copyright © 2008 Ian Visser; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Smithsonian Channel
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 189 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Smithsonian Institute