This morning, the National Museum of American History announced via Facebook and other more traditional outlets that it would close for the morning. The occasion was the arrival of first lady Michelle Obama’s inaugural ball gown.

The floor-length gown is a white chiffon, one-shoulder affair that sparkles with Swarovski crystals. In fashion circles, it has been labeled everything from “frothy and girlish” to “dignified and elegant.” But this morning, it became historic when the museum’s director Brent Glass noted the nearly century old tradition that brings the president’s wife to the Smithsonian to donate her inaugural ball gown to the much-loved and much-visited collection of first lady artifacts, which dates back to Martha Washington.

But today’s ceremony had a decidedly new century flare to it, guided perhaps by first lady Michelle Obama’s request to invite 36 students, along with their chaperones, who are enrolled in a fashion program at Long Island, New York’s, Huntington High School. Mrs. Obama asked the group to stand and be recognized. They had sent to her, prior to the 2009 inauguration, a portfolio they’d assembled of all of their creations in hopes that one of their designs might be chosen. Certainly careers were in the making as a number of fashion reporters present in the audience asked to see the students’ book.

And at her side was the now world-famous Manhattan-based designer, the 27-year-old Jason Wu, who recalled that night in 2009, when Mrs. Obama had chosen his dress. “Frankly, I had no idea my design was being seriously considered until I, along with the rest of the world, saw Mrs. Obama step out on television. Imagine my surprise.”

Launching fashion careers seemed to be Mrs. Obama’s agenda for the day: from the students in the audience to the young Wu, who noted to the crowd, “to say that she has changed my life is truly an understatement,” to the dress she was wearing today by one of her more recent fashion finds—Prabal Gurung, who just this year launched his first runway fashion show.

“So, here we are,” she began in a self-effacing style. “It’s the dress,” she said pointing to the headless mannequin now fashionably attired in Mrs. Obama’s former frock and which would later in the morning be moved auspiciously to its glass vitrine at the center of the new gallery that opens March 10.

“I am very honored and very humbled,” she continued. “But I have to say that I’m also a little embarrassed by all the fuss being made over my dress.” And to laughter, she added, “I’m not used to people wanting to put things I’ve worn on display.”

But of course this was not just any dress and even the first lady knew that. For history, as we know it, is little more than an assemblage of personal stories. Looking at the gowns housed at the Smithsonian, Mrs. Obama recognized that generations of visitors coming to see her dress might ask if the train may have tripped up her husband several times throughout the evening or if the Jimmy Choo shoes caused her feet to ache. The items, she noted, “help us understand that history is really made by real live people.”

“When I look at my gown—which I, in fact, have not seen since the day that I took it off—memories of that moment truly come rushing back,” she said. “I remember that it was freezing cold in Washington. I know we all remember that. Yet, despite the frigid temperatures, hundreds of thousands of people flooded the Mall. Nothing was going to stop them from being part of history.”

Mrs. Obama recalled standing with the president in the reviewing stand at the inaugural parade, waving until “every last band walked by.” And then realizing, with mock horror, that she had less than an hour to dress for the night ahead.

But she told the crowd: “I’ll never forget the moment that I slipped on this beautiful gown. I remember how just luscious I felt as the president and I were announced onto the stage for the first of many dances. And I’ll cherish that moment for the rest of my life.”

The new gallery, “A First Lady’s Debut” opens tomorrow, March 10, and will include 11 gowns worn by first ladies from Mamie Eisenhower to Michelle Obama. Together the two galleries that make up the “First Ladies at the Smithsonian” exhibition will feature a total of 24 dresses and more than 100 other objects, including portraits, White House china and personal items.

Dan Brown’s Smithsonian: Fact or Fiction?

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.

Fact (sort of) : The operative word here is "over." Brown was a little off. I checked in with MSC. Try about 212,000 species.

4. The MSC contains, in its holdings, poisoned darts from New Guinea, handwritten codices, a kayak made of baleen and extinct flowers.

Fiction : This may be splitting hairs, but a source at the MSC says that Brown was shown poison darts from Ecuador on the tour he took of the facility in April 2008. They have a few blowgun darts from New Guinea, but they do not know if they are poisoned. Also, some handwritten Islamic and Buddhist manuscripts, prayer books and Korans, all from the 19 th and 20 th centuries, are kept there. But they don't really fit the definition of a codex. The facility reports having no kayaks made completely of baleen and says that extinct flowers are kept in the herbarium at the National Museum of Natural History. He did, however, get it right in saying that the MSC has meteorites, a collection of elephant skulls brought back from an African safari by Teddy Roosevelt and Sitting Bull's pictographic diary.

5. Only two percent of the Smithsonian's collection can be displayed in the museums at any given time; the MSC stores the other 98 percent.

Fiction : The Smithsonian, as a whole, displays less than two percent of its collection, estimated at the end of 2008 to be 136.8 million items. And the MSC stores more like 40 percent of the collection, while the rest of the objects not on display are housed behind-the-scenes in the museums (about 58 percent at the Natural History museum) or other off-site storage facilities.

6. The Smithsonian Castle, located on the National Mall, is a blend of Gothic and late Romanesque architecture—basically, a quintessential Norman castle, like those found in England at about the 12 th century.

Partly Fiction : Though influenced by the Gothic, Romanesque and Norman styles, the building is a 19 th century hybrid, a romanticized Victorian era mix that was meant to be a new "national style" of architecture, according to Richard Stamm, curator of the Castle collection.

7. The Castle once had two resident owls, named Diffusion and Increase.

Fact : Secretary S. Dillon Ripley (1964-84) had a pair of barn owls housed in one of the towers. He hoped that they would produce offspring (increase), explains Stamm. They did, but they "flew the coop" (diffusion) when the windows were opened to let the owls fend for themselves. Ripley named the adult pair Increase and Diffusion in reference to the Smithsonian's mission, "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge."

Interested in more about Dan Brown's Washington? Read about the Masonic temple that features heavily in the novel.

Holiday Delivery From the Graf Zeppelin

On December 8, 1934, the dirigible Graf Zeppelin —named for one inventor of hydrogen airships, Graf (Count) Ferdinand von Zeppelin—departed its Friedrichshafen, Germany, home base on its 418th flight, bound for Recife, Brazil. At the height of the Christmas season, the 776-foot-long dirigible carried 19 passengers, holiday mail and a load of freshly cut Christmas trees.

The cards and letters it transported bore a distinctive mark on their envelopes: a small image (known to collectors as a cachet) stamped in ink, depicting the zeppelin and a fir tree festooned with candles in Nordic fashion. One of those envelopes, now darkened with age, also bears traces of a second mark, applied during a train trip across Germany. In the 1950s, John P.V. Heinmuller, a Longines Watch Company executive and an aviation enthusiast, donated 2,000 envelopes once transported by zeppelin to the Smithsonian; today, the collection resides in the National Postal Museum (NPM).

Recipients of the Graf Zeppelin 's seasonal delivery would be some of South America's many German immigrants, drawn to the resource-rich continent by the promise of wealth. "There was a huge German population in South America in the '30s," says Cheryl Ganz, a curator at the NPM. "Surrounded by palm trees, they obviously had a longing for traditional fir trees. Since the Graf Zeppelin could make the trip nonstop in less than four days, much faster than any ship, the trees would still be fresh when they arrived." The craft landed in Recife on December 12 and went on to Rio de Janeiro, where it arrived on December 13, bringing the last of its Christmas tree shipment to holiday revelers.

In those days, only giant airships could carry enough fuel to make nonstop trans-Atlantic flights. As early as 1921, Hugo Eckener, a former journalist who succeeded Zeppelin as head of the dirigible company, had investigated possible routes from Spain to South America by making a voyage on a cargo ship. During the crossing, Eckener observed the kinds of weather patterns and storms an airship might encounter. He calculated potential dirigible routes based on prevailing sea lanes. After the voyage, Eckener described himself as "very well satisfied" that the "area [was] suitable for flying."

The Graf Zeppelin made its first trans-Atlantic demonstration flight in October 1928 and was making regularly scheduled deliveries by the summer of 1934. Mail carried by zeppelin bore the distinctive cachets and postmarks. "The airships were the pathfinders for later fixed-wing flights," says Ganz. "Because the passenger and crew cabin wasn't pressurized, [dirigibles] had to fly low—low enough to see the faces of people on ships they passed over—so the crew had to figure out wind currents and weather patterns."

The age of dirigibles was relatively brief. It began in 1874, when Count von Zeppelin, a former cavalry general, began working on plans for lighter-than-air, propeller-driven balloons. Dirigibles began flying before World War I. During that conflict, they were used as scout aircraft and for bombing raids.

After the war, the count's company fell on hard times and was rescued by Eckener. In 1919, a British military crew made the first nonstop, trans-Atlantic flight, in a British-built dirigible, getting an eight-year jump on Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis . But the real liftoff for dirigibles came with the launch of the Graf Zeppelin and its larger successor, the Hindenburg (the length of three football fields). It is no overstatement to say that much of the world fell in love with the ponderous but stately crafts, which Eckener likened to "gleaming silver fish in an ocean of sky."

The dream machines were finally done in by a convergence of harsh realities. As Nazi repression and military ambition alarmed much of the world, Americans took note that the swastika was now painted on the tail fins of the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg . Also, Hitler saw the airships—outpaced by airplanes in speed, ability to fly long distances and payload capacity—as too slow for combat and discontinued government support.

The final blow came with the Hindenburg disaster; the airship burst into flames as it landed in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937; 35 of 97 passengers died. The cause of the conflagration was not difficult to remedy—a switch from flammable hydrogen to inert helium—but because zeppelins were not deemed essential to the war effort, "most of the intricate frameworks were melted down to make airplanes," Ganz says.

Today, a German firm, ZLT, has revived the zeppelin with a version that is smaller, lofted by helium and dubbed the NT (for New Technology). An American company, Airship Ventures, based out of Moffett Field, California, now flies one of the next-generation craft on sightseeing excursions.

Owen Edwards is a freelance writer and author of the book Elegant Solutions .

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated that Airship Ventures was based in Napa, California. This version has been updated.

Previous article Norman Rockwell’s Neighborhood
Next article Looking for Leonardo


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here