An Unexpected Journey Into a Vault of Treasures

By Erika Solberg

The recent VAMPY trip to Washington, D.C. took a surprising turn for the Pop Culture class when the curator showing the group around the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History offered to take them into a vault not accessible to the public. Teacher Justin Mitchell tells the story:

On the D.C. trip, we always hook up with one of the curators, and he or she talks about working in pop culture. This year we had a new guy, and I was fearful because he sent an email out prior to the trip making it sound like we were just another obligation to him, like he didn’t really know about the VAMPY Pop Culture class. When we got there, we were waiting for a few students that were in the bathroom, so I was telling him what we do in the course and he seemed to warm up a little bit.

Teacher Justin Mitchell (in baseball cap) enjoyed the visit as much as his students.

Then we were asking a question about the difference between borrowing and acquiring museum pieces. He explained how the museum doesn’t have a budget to buy any pieces from anyone, but people want to donate to them because they know that the museum can preserve items for years to come. He also explained how Disney has its own vaults, but it will give the Smithsonian items when it wants to promote new movies or things that are popular. He said that, for example, Infinity Wars had just came out so Disney didn’t give them anything from that movie, but it gave them Captain America’s shield from Winter Soldier.

Well, I freaked out, and all the students were excited and asking questions like, “When’s it going to go on display?”

He said it wouldn’t go up for a while, but then he asked, “How long do you have?”

I said, “We have the whole day.”

And he said, “Well, let’s go see it.”

Of course, we were all geeking out. I’ve done this trip with this class for four years and never had the opportunity to go in the vault. The curator had been working there for over 20 years, and he got excited about taking us too.

Hannah Jawed does a little fangirling.

So we got to go up to the vault, and my student Chloe Banaszak [of Crestwood, TN] got to hold the Captain America Shield. She was shocked that it was so light — it’s made of rubber — and I think our reaction got him excited about wanting to tell us about his job because he’s passionate about it. He continued to show us things — Wolverine’s claws; the Scarecrow and Wicked Witch costumes from The Wizard of Oz; Seinfeld’s Puffy Shirt; Mr. Roger’s sweater; Marilyn Monroe’s gloves; a gremlin from Gremlin; dinosaur eggs from Jurassic Park; the hat and a gas mask from Breaking Bad; Indiana Jones’s whip, coat and hat; and all of these Muppets, including Oscar the Grouch’s trash can. He just kept opening up drawer after drawer. We spent probably close to an hour there. It was great.

Next time, I hope to have the same curator. I’m going to email him and say, “Thank you! We would love to do this again with you next year!”

Note: the Smithsonian curator allowed the group to take all the photos they wanted of the items but requested that none of those photos be shared on social media. Our Flickr account has plenty of reaction shots of the students viewing the items, however, and if you know any students on the trip, feel free to ask to look at their pictures!