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Joan Marcus

20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Hamilton

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Joan Marcus

No one could have predicted that a hip-hop-infused musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton would be Broadway’s hottest ticket, but Hamilton—which Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote over the course of six years—is sold out through next year. Here are a few things you might not have known about Miranda’s take on the life and times of the first Secretary of the Treasury.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY RON CHERNOW’S BIOGRAPHY OF HAMILTON.

Not long after his show In the Heights won four Tony Awards in 2008, Lin-Manuel Miranda went on vacation. Before he left, he picked up a biography called Alexander Hamilton. “I was just browsing the biography section. It could have been Truman,” he told 60 Minutes. “I got to the part where a hurricane destroys St. Croix, where Hamilton is living. And he writes a poem about the carnage and this poem gets him off the island.”

“That is part and parcel with the hip-hop narrative: writing your way out of your circumstances, writing the future you want to see for yourself,” Miranda told The New York Times. “This is a guy who wrote at 14, ‘I wish there was a war.’ It doesn’t get more hip-hop than that.”

Miranda recalled to Vogue that “I Googled ‘Alexander Hamilton hip-hop musical’ and totally expected to see that someone had already written it. But no. So I got to work.”

2. IT TOOK MIRANDA A YEAR TO WRITE THE FIRST SONG—AND ANOTHER YEAR TO WRITE THE SECOND SONG.

He performed the song, “Alexander Hamilton,” at the White House in 2009 (you can watch the video above). “From what I hear,” Questlove, who produced the cast album, told Billboard, “the president won't cease to let you know that: ‘The White House is where it began.’”

It took Miranda another year to craft Hamilton’s anthem, “My Shot.” “Every couplet needed to be the best couplet I ever wrote,” Miranda told 60 Minutes. “That’s how seriously I was taking it.”

When he needed to come up with lyrics, he told Smithsonian, he walked. “For Hamilton what I’d do is write at the piano until I had something I liked,” he said. “I’d make a loop of it and put it in my headphones and then walk around until I had the lyrics. That’s where the notebooks come in, sort of write what comes to me, bring it back to the piano. I kind of need to be ambulatory to write lyrics.”

3. IT STARTED AS A MIXTAPE, NOT A MUSICAL.

Initially, Miranda said he was working on a concept album inspired by the life of Alexander Hamilton called The Hamilton Mixtape. “I always had an eye toward the stage for the story of Hamilton's life, but I began with the idea of a concept album, the way Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar were albums before they were musicals,” Miranda recounted to the Hollywood Reporter. “And I built this score by dream casting my favorite artists. I always imagined George Washington as a mix between Common and John Legend (a pretty good description of Christopher Jackson, actually, who plays our first president); Hercules Mulligan was Busta Rhymes; and Hamilton was modeled after my favorite polysyllabic rhyming heroes, Rakim, Big Pun, and Eminem.”

The reason, he told The New York Times, was because “I wanted to be a little more selfish with this—I wanted the lyrics to have the density that my favorite hip-hop albums have … It was easier to think of it as a hip-hop album, because then I could really just pack the lyrics. [But] I only know how to write musicals.” He performed 12 musical numbers from The Hamilton Mixtape at Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series in January 2012; he began workshopping the show in 2014. It played The Public beginning in January 2015 and made the jump to Broadway in July 2015 (it officially opened in August).

4. MIRANDA DID HIS RESEARCH—BOTH HISTORICALLY AND MUSICALLY.

In addition to reading Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, Miranda read Hamilton’s letters and works and visited sites important to the American Revolution in New York City. He explained to The Atlantic that, to understand Burr, he read The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr by H.W. Brands, and to nail the dueling code of the day, he picked up Affairs of Honor by Joanne Freeman. He wrote, for a time, at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, which Washington once used as a headquarters during the Revolutionary War. In October 2014, before the show began playing at The Public, he and director Thomas Kail went to the Weehawken, New Jersey dueling ground where Burr shot Hamilton (the actual dueling grounds are covered by train tracks now, but there is a small memorial there).

Miranda also looked at other musicals before diving into Hamilton, like Jesus Christ Superstar and Les Miserables. “I really got my Les Miz on in this score, like being really smart about where to reintroduce a theme,” he told The New Yorker. “In terms of how it accesses your tear ducts, nothing does it better than that show.”

5. CHERNOW BECAME A HISTORICAL CONSULTANT FOR THE SHOW.

Miranda met Chernow before he performed the song that would become “Alexander Hamilton” at the White House (in fact, he sang the song to Chernow in the biographer’s living room), and soon Chernow became a consultant on the show. “[Miranda] was smart enough to know that the best way to dramatize this story was to stick as close to the facts as possible,” Chernow told 60 Minutes.

“I’m theater people, and theater people, the only history they know is the history they know from other plays and musicals,” Miranda told The Atlantic. “So to that end, I felt an enormous responsibility to be as historically accurate as possible, while still telling the most dramatic story possible. And that’s why Ron Chernow is a historical consultant on the thing, and, you know, he was always sort of keeping us honest. And when I did part from the historical record or take dramatic license, I made sure I was able to defend it to Ron, because I knew that I was going to have to defend it in the real world. None of those choices are made lightly.”

According to Smithsonian, Chernow looked at every draft and every song and assessed everything for accuracy.

6. THE SHOW WASN’T ALWAYS SUNG THROUGH.

Hamilton is sung and rapped from start to finish, but it wasn’t always that way. “We actually went down the road with a playwright,” Miranda told Grantland. “There’s a version of Act 1 where we had songs and they were the songs that are in the show, but we found that if you start with our opening number, you can’t go back to speech. The ball is just thrown too high in the air.”

The show features one scene that isn’t sung, and which Miranda kept off of the cast album: In “Tomorrow There’ll Be More of Us,” which takes place between “Dear Theodosia” and “Non-Stop,” Hamilton finds out that his friend Laurens has been killed. “I made a decision not to record this scene on the album, for two reasons,” Miranda wrote on Tumblr:

1) It really is more of a scene than a song, the only SCENE in our show, and I think its impact is at its fullest in production form. 2) As someone who grew up ONLY listening to cast albums (we ain’t have money for a lot of Broadway shows, like most people) those withheld moments were REVELATIONS to me when I finally experienced them onstage, years later. Hamilton is sung through, and I wanted to have at least ONE revelation in store for you. I stand by the decision, and I think the album is better for it.

7. HE WROTE KING GEORGE’S SONG ON HIS HONEYMOON.

Because he’s an interloper on the proceedings of Hamilton, King George’s song, You'll Be Back, is quite different from the rest of the show’s numbers. “It’s a throwback to a sixties Beatles tune,” Jonathan Groff, who plays King George, told Vogue. “And it’s a breakup song between America and England, which is fabulous. He’s like, ‘You’re leaving me? Oh, really? Well, good luck with that.’” Miranda wrote the song while on his honeymoon in 2010 “without a piano around,” he told Grantland.

8. THE ORIGINAL VERSION OF “MY SHOT” HAD AN EXTRA VERSE FOR HERCULES MULLIGAN.

“I’m Hercules Mulligan, a tailor spying on the British Government / I take the measurements, information and then I smuggle it / Up to my brother's revolutionary covenant / I’m running with the Sons of Liberty, and I’m loving it,” Mulligan raps. At that point, neither the Marquis de Lafayette nor John Laurens were part of the song. You can hear the rest of the demo here; portions of Mulligan’s verse ended up in “Yorktown (World Turned Upside Down).”

9. MIRANDA WROTE “WAIT FOR IT” ON THE SUBWAY.

“I was going to a friend’s birthday party in [Brooklyn],” he said, when a lyric from the chorus to Aaron Burr’s song, “Wait for It,” came to him.  “I sang the melody into the iPhone, then I went to the guy’s party for 15 minutes, and wrote the rest of the song on the train back home.”

10. THE RAP IN “GUNS AND SHIPS” IS FAST. REALLY, REALLY FAST.

“I believe that form [rap] is uniquely suited to tell Hamilton’s story, because it has more words per measure than any other musical genre,” Miranda told 60 Minutes. “It has rhythm, and it has density, and if Hamilton had anything in his writing, it was this density.” The use of rap helps Miranda pack more than 20,000 words into two and a half hours—roughly 144 words per minute, according to Leah Libresco at FiveThirtyEight. “If Hamilton were sung at the pace of the other Broadway shows I looked at, it would take four to six hours,” Libresco wrote. She found that the musical’s fastest paced verse, from the song “Guns and Ships,” clocked in at 6.3 words per second.

11. THE SONGS SAMPLE RAP MUSIC AND REFERENCE RAP SONGS—AS WELL AS OTHER MUSICALS.

As a show that has its roots in rap, it’s not surprising that Miranda has peppered Hamilton with rap references and samples: “My Shot” has elements of Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones Part II” and an homage to Notorious B.I.G.’s “Going Back to Cali”; the song “Ten Duel Commandments” samples B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments”; the opening to “Cabinet Battle #1” references Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and contains parts of “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash; “Meet Me Inside” contains elements of DMX’s “Party Up in Here (Up in Here)”; and “Cabinet Battle #2” references B.I.G’s “Juicy (It’s All Good).” These themes—and samples—show up in other songs throughout Hamilton.

Miranda pays homage to good old fashioned Broadway shows, too: He snatched a line from South Pacific for Burr (“I’m with you but the situation is fraught / You’ve got to be carefully taught,” in “My Shot”), makes reference to the song "Modern Major General" from Pirates of Penzance (when Washington sings, “The model of a modern major general / the venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all / Lining up, to put me on a pedestal,” in “Right Hand Man”), and put parts of “Nobody Needs to Know” from The Last Five Years in “Say No to This.”

Miranda’s lyrics are also packed with historical references. We decoded a few here, and many are annotating the lyrics on Genius (Miranda has also weighed in there). Miranda is working on his own book of annotated lyrics, which will hit stores in April. “I am writing a new set of annotations for the book,” he tweeted. “Not what you'd find on Genius, just things in my brain & heart.”  

12. AT FIRST, MIRANDA COULDN’T DECIDE IF HE WANTED TO PLAY HAMILTON OR BURR.

“I feel an equal affinity with Burr,” he told The New Yorker. “Burr is every bit as smart as Hamilton, and every bit as gifted, and he comes from the same amount of loss as Hamilton. But because of the way they are wired Burr hangs back where Hamilton charges forward. I feel like I have been Burr in my life as many times as I have been Hamilton.” But eventually, he chose Hamilton: “When I get called in for stuff for Hollywood, I get to be the best friend of the Caucasian lead. If I want to play the main guy, I have found, I have to write it ...  [As Hamilton], I get to be cockier than I really am; I get to be smarter than I really am; I get to be more impulsive than I really am—it’s taking the reins off your id for two and a half hours.”

Burr is now played by Leslie Odom Jr. “I stupidly gave him a lot of the best songs,” Miranda told Grantland. “‘Wait for It’ and ‘The Room Where It Happens’ are two of the best songs I’ve ever written in my life and he got them both.”

13. THE CASTING CHOICES WERE DELIBERATE.

“Our goal was: This is a story about America then, told by America now, and we want to eliminate any distance—our story should look the way our country looks,” Miranda told The New York Times. “Then we found the best people to embody these parts. I think it’s a very powerful statement without having to be a statement.” The only main character played by a white actor is King George.

“When I think about what it would mean to me as a 13-, 14-year-old kid, to get this album or see this show—it can make me very emotional,” Odom told The New York Times.

14. MIRANDA CUT GEORGE WASHINGTON’S DEATH FROM THE SHOW.

Initially, Washington’s death was in the show—but Miranda cut it. “Oof. I wrote that. Brutal,” he tweeted:

One cut line...

BURR: And in our grief-
HAMILTON/JEFFERSON: He unites us one last time.

“It was a cut musical moment, & actually began with Burr singing, ‘I hear wailing in the streets…,’” he continued. He cut it, he said, “because we sing a whole song about him saying goodbye and even though the moment gave us feels, it was redundant.”

15. THE LOTTERY FOR TICKETS SOMETIMES FEATURES ITS OWN SHOW.

So far, #Ham4Ham—as the show is called—has regularly featured members of Hamilton’s cast as well as other Broadway performers; it takes place on the street outside the Richard Rodgers theater. Among other things, Miranda has dueted with Broadway star Lea Salonga; answered audience questions with just Les Miz lyrics; showed his love for the show’s tech people by running the entire cast through a number while the cues were called; presided over the three actors who have played King George lip syncing a song from the show; and hosted a contest to see which Hamilton fan could nail the Lafayette rap in “Guns and Ships.” Miranda puts on the show, he told Rolling Stone, because he knows that most of the hundreds of people who line up for the lottery won’t win, and he doesn’t want them to walk away with nothing.

16. WHEN CELEBRITIES COME BACKSTAGE, THEY SIGN A LIFE-SIZED CUTOUT OF HAMILTON.

Jennifer Lopez, Danny DeVito, Steven Spielberg, Sting, Jon Lasseter, Oprah, Vice President Joe Biden, and more have put their kind words—and their John Hancocks—on and around Hamilton.

17. THE STARS OF THE SHOW HELPED TO RAISE MONEY FOR THE ORPHANAGE ELIZA HAMILTON STARTED.

In 1806, Eliza Hamilton was one of the founders of New York City’s first private orphanage; these days, it’s called Graham Windham. Miranda and Philippa Soo, who plays Eliza in Hamilton, performed at an event to raise money for the organization. “What a time at the @GrahamWindham luncheon today,” he tweeted. “When the kids (from ELIZA'S ORGANIZATION) sang ‘Eliza, you have done enough.’ I mean…”

18. THE PRESIDENT IS A HUGE FAN.

President Obama called the show “brilliant,” adding, “so much so that I’m pretty sure this is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I have agreed on—during my entire political career.”

19. IT HAS STEPHEN SONDHEIM'S SEAL OF APPROVAL.

At some point, Miranda showed his songs to Steven Sondheim, the man behind Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, and many more musicals, who told The New York Times, “He sent me lyrics printed out, and recordings of the songs. This raised obvious red flags: I worried that an evening of rap might get monotonous; I thought the rhythm might become relentless. But the wonderful thing about Lin-Manuel’s use of rap is that he’s got one foot in the past. He knows theater … Hamilton is a breakthrough … We’ll certainly see more rap musicals. The next thing we’ll get is Lincoln set to rap. If you think I’m kidding, talk to me in a year.”

20. THERE’S GOING TO BE AN ACTUAL MIXTAPE.

Though Hamilton evolved beyond Miranda’s original vision, there are now plans to make a mixtape for real: “So the show is done. Cast album is out. Now we begin planning The Hamilton Mixtape. Remixes & Covers & Inspired bys. FOR REAL. GET READY,” he tweeted in October. “I was originally trying to get the mixtape done with Atlantic before we opened, but that's like performing surgery while having a baby.” The mixtape will feature a third, unreleased rap battle, “where Ham, Mad & Jeff go IN on slavery,” Miranda tweeted. “It was sort of our homage to ‘Hail Mary’ [by Tupac Shakur],” he told Billboard. Hopefully, it will also feature this cut rap about John Adams (who once called Hamilton the "bastard brat of a Scot peddler"). There’s no firm date, but the mixtape is expected early next year.

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10 Witty Facts About The Marx Brothers
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Talented as individuals and magnificent as a team, the Marx Brothers conquered every medium from the vaudeville stage to the silver screen. Today, we’re tipping our hats (and tooting our horns) to Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo—on the 50th anniversary of Groucho's passing.

1. A RUNAWAY MULE INSPIRED THEM TO TAKE A STAB AT COMEDY.

Julius, Milton, and Arthur Marx originally aspired to be professional singers. In 1907, the boys joined a group called “The Three Nightingales.” Managed by their mother, Minnie, the ensemble performed covers of popular songs in theaters all over the country. As Nightingales, the brothers enjoyed some moderate success, but they might never have found their true calling if it weren’t for an unruly equid. During a 1907 gig at the Nacogdoches Opera House in East Texas, someone interrupted the performance by barging in and shouting “Mule’s loose!” Immediately, the crowd raced out to watch the newly-liberated animal. Back inside, Julius seethed. Furious at having lost the spotlight, he skewered his audience upon their return. “The jackass is the finest flower of Tex-ass!” he shouted, among many other ad-libbed jabs. Rather than boo, the patrons roared with laughter. Word of his wit soon spread and demand for these Marx brothers grew.

2. THEY RECEIVED THEIR STAGE NAMES DURING A POKER GAME.

In May of 1914, the five Marxes were playing cards with standup comedian Art Fisher. Inspired by a popular comic strip character known as “Sherlocko the Monk,” he decided that the boys could use some new nicknames. Leonard’s was a no-brainer. Given his girl-crazy, “chick-chasing” lifestyle, Fisher dubbed him “Chicko” (later, this was shortened to “Chico”). Arthur loved playing the harp and thus became “Harpo.” An affinity for soft gumshoes earned Milton the alias “Gummo.” Finally, Julius was both cynical and often seen wearing a “grouch bag”—wherein he’d store small objects like marbles and candy—around his neck. Thus, “Groucho” was born. For the record, nobody knows how Herbert Marx came to be known as “Zeppo.”

3. GROUCHO WORE HIS TRADEMARK GREASEPAINT MUSTACHE BECAUSE HE HATED MORE REALISTIC MODELS.

Michael Ochs Archives/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Phony, glue-on facial hair can be a pain to remove and reapply, so Groucho would simply paint a ‘stache and some exaggerated eyebrows onto his face. However, the mustache he later rocked as the host of his famous quiz show You Bet Your Life was 100 percent real.

4. HARPO WAS A SELF-TAUGHT HARPIST.

Without any formal training (or the ability to read sheet music), the second-oldest Marx brother developed a unique style that he never stopped improving upon. “Dad really loved playing the harp, and he did it constantly,” his son, Bill Marx, wrote. “Maybe the first multi-tasker ever, he even had a harp in the bathroom so he could play when he sat on the toilet!”

5. THE VERY FIRST MARX BROTHERS MOVIE WAS NEVER RELEASED.

Financed by Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and a handful of other investors, Humor Risk was filmed in 1921. Accounts differ, but most scholars agree that the silent picture—which would have served as the family’s cinematic debut—never saw completion. Despite this, an early screening of the work-in-progress was reportedly held in the Bronx. When Humor Risk failed to impress there, production halted. By Marx Brothers standards, it would’ve been an unusual flick, with Harpo playing a heroic detective opposite a villainous Groucho character.

6. GUMMO AND ZEPPO BECAME TALENT AGENTS.

World War I forced Gummo to quit the stage. Following his return, the veteran decided that performing was no longer for him and instead started a raincoat business. Zeppo—the youngest brother—then assumed Gummo’s role as the troupe’s straight-talking foil. A brilliant businessman, Zeppo eventually break away to found the talent agency Zeppo Marx Inc., which grew into Hollywood’s third-largest, representing superstars like Clark Gable, Lucille Ball, and—of course—the other three Marx Brothers. Gummo, who joined the company in 1935, was charged with handling Groucho, Harpo, and Chico’s needs.

7. CHICO ONCE LAUNCHED A BIG BAND GROUP.

Chico took advantage of an extended break between Marx brothers movies to realize a lifelong dream. A few months before The Big Store hit cinemas in 1941, he co-founded the Chico Marx Orchestra: a swinging jazz band that lasted until July of 1943. Short-lived as the group was, however, it still managed to recruit some amazing talent—including singer/composer Mel Tormé, who would go on to help write the “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” in 1945.

8. THEY TESTED OUT NEW MATERIAL FOR A NIGHT AT THE OPERA IN FRONT OF LIVE AUDIENCES.

With the script still being drafted, MGM made the inspired choice to let the brothers perform key scenes in such places as Seattle, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. Once a given joke was made, the Marxes meticulously timed the ensuing laughter, which let them know exactly how much silence to leave after repeating the gag on film. According to Harpo, this had the added benefit of shortening A Night at the Opera’s production period. “We didn’t have to rehearse,” he explained. “[We just] got onto the set and let the cameras roll.”

9. GROUCHO TEMPORARILY HOSTED THE TONIGHT SHOW.

Jack Paar bid the job farewell on March 29, 1962. Months before their star’s departure, NBC offered Paar’s Tonight Show seat to Groucho, who had established himself as a razor-sharp, well-liked host during You Bet Your Life’s 14-year run. Though Marx turned the network down, he later served as a guest host for two weeks while Johnny Carson prepared to take over the gig. When Carson finally made his Tonight Show debut on October 1, it was Groucho who introduced him.

10. SPY MAGAZINE USED A MARX BROTHERS MOVIE TO PRANK U.S. CONGRESSMEN.

Duck Soup takes place in Freedonia, a fictional country over which the eccentric Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) presides. In 1993, 60 years after the movie’s release, this imaginary nation made headlines by embarrassing some real-life politicians. Staffers from Spy got in touch with around 20 freshmen in the House of Representatives, asking some variation on the question “Do you approve of what we’re doing to stop ethnic cleansing in Freedonia?” A few lawmakers took the bait. Representative Corrine Brown (D-Florida) professed to approve of America’s presence in Freedonia, saying “I think all of those situations are very, very sad, and I just think we need to take action to assist the people.” Across the aisle, Steve Buyer (R-Indiana) concurred. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s a different situation than the Middle East.”

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12 Facts About the Smithsonian's Collections
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With 19 museums spread along the East Coast, the Smithsonian Institution has become the country’s richest repository of American history. From culture to science, zoos to space exploration, the federally-backed archive has spent nearly 200 years preserving and educating. Check out some facts on its history, how a new species of dolphin was found hiding in its archives, and how the founder eventually became part of the collection.

1. ITS FOUNDER NEVER SET FOOT IN THE STATES.

Wealthy British globe-trotter James Smithson (1765-1829) had acquired an estate worth roughly $500,000 at the time of his death and ordered that all of his assets be inherited by his nephew, Henry James Dickinson. There was one twist: The estate was to be turned over to the United States in the event Dickinson died without an heir of his own so the country could build a hub for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Henry, then 18, died just six years later, and so President James Polk signed the act approving the Smithsonian Institution into law in 1846. Curiously, Smithson had never even visited the U.S. Why leave such a legacy to a foreign nation? Smithson never commented on his decision, leaving people to guess that it was either because he was impressed by democracy or because he wanted to enrich a country that, at the time, had only a few educational hubs.

2. NO ONE WAS REALLY SURE WHAT SMITHSON WANTED.

A portrait of James Smithson

“Increase and diffusion of knowledge” can be interpreted pretty broadly, and it took the United States a long time—roughly 10 years—before anyone could agree on what to do with Smithson’s gift. Educators, politicians, and civilians all had a unique notion of how to spend his fortune, including opening a university, a library, or an observatory. Ultimately, the Smithsonian Institution was a compromise, involving many of these ideas. By 1855, construction on the main building was complete at the National Mall in Washington; it was designated as a National Museum in 1858 [PDF].

3. THEY HAD TO HIDE THEIR COLLECTION FROM AXIS FORCES.

At the height of U.S. involvement in World War II, museum curators knew that Axis forces would have designs on destroying the vibrant culture housed at the museum’s main location at the National Mall. To protect these irreplaceable items, the Smithsonian arranged to have them shipped to an undisclosed location—now known to be near Luray, Virginia—and stored in a climate-controlled warehouse. They didn’t return until 1944.

4. SMOKEY BEAR LIVED AT THEIR ZOO.

Smokey Bear takes a bath at the National Zoo

Yes, that Smokey Bear. (And there’s no “the” in his name.) In 1950, a bear cub that survived a raging forest fire in Capitan, New Mexico, was adopted by the U.S. Forest Service and named Smokey after the popular ad campaign mascot of the era. As a living symbol of the effort, he spent his remaining 26 years at the National Zoo, a constant recipient of visitor attention and hundreds of jars of honey.

5. THEY DISPLAY JUST ONE PERCENT OF THEIR COLLECTION.

In order to execute Smithson’s mission statement, the Smithsonian has had to morph into the greatest display of hoarding the world has ever seen. All told, the Institution’s various artifacts, specimens, and other arcana is believed to number in the neighborhood of 137 million, with an official museum estimate of 154 million. Just 1 percent of that is available for viewing at any given time.

6. ONE CATEGORY IS USUALLY OFF-LIMITS FOR VIEWING.

17th century human remains found in Jamestown, Virginia

Evolving public attitudes over the decades have prompted the Smithsonian to be very wary of displaying human remains. While they’ve collected everything from shrunken heads to the “soap man”—a corpse whose body turned to a soap-like substance thanks to a chemical reaction to soil—most of it remains out of public view.

7. AN EXHIBIT ON NUCLEAR WAR STIRRED CONTROVERSY.

For a planned exhibit of the Enola Gay, the bomber plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima during World War II, museum organizers drew criticism in 1994 for presenting material that some veterans groups and members of Congress felt was politically charged. The museum agreed to omit text near the display that some felt dwelled on the horrific effects of the bomb, as well as references estimating the U.S. and rival casualties that might have been suffered if the bomb had not been deployed.

8. THE WEIRDEST ITEM THEY’VE CATALOGED IS A CRAPPY VIDEO GAME.

The box art for the Atari 2600 game E.T.

Amidst many internet lists of strange Smithsonian catalog items—taxidermied animals, beards, and other miscellanea—nothing seems more incongruous than the 2014 inclusion of a 1982 Atari video game based on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Renowned for being produced quickly and for helping to fuel the video game crash of the early 1980s, supplies of the cartridge were buried in a New Mexico landfill and only recently excavated. One went into the museum's archives.

9. THEY TURNED DOWN JIMMY DURANTE’S NOSE.

In the 1950s, actor and comedian Jimmy Durante was easily identified by his bulbous nose, a three-inch-long (from bridge to tip) feature that led to his nickname, “the Great Schnozzola.” Sensing a publicity opportunity, Durante’s management arranged for a makeup artist to create a plaster cast of Durante’s nose and offer it up to the Smithsonian as a piece of Americana. Frank Setzler, the museum’s head of anthropology was unimpressed. “Heavens, no,” he was quoted as saying. “Who would want that? The only place we could use it would be in the elephant display.”

10. AN UNDISCOVERED SPECIES OF DOLPHIN WAS LURKING IN THEIR INVENTORY.

A dolphin skull from a recently-discovered species

With so many specimens, the bowels of the Smithsonian almost certainly harbor secrets that can surprise even scientists. In 2016, two researchers in search of fossilized marine mammals stumbled across the skull of a 25-million-year-old river dolphin they named Arktocara yakataga. Said to have been found in Alaska, the dolphin may have dwelled in the Arctic. It was estimated that the skull—plucked from obscurity because one of the researchers found it “cute”—sat on the shelf for 50 years before being identified.

11. THEY’RE COMMITTED TO PRESERVING DOROTHY’S SLIPPERS.

Possibly the most iconic pair of footwear in pop culture, Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the 1939 film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz have become a Smithsonian trademark. In 2016, the Institution successfully raised over $300,000 on Kickstarter to build a state-of-the-art preservation case to protect the kicks from deterioration. While star Judy Garland wore several pairs during filming and the Smithsonian’s are mismatched, it’s clear that visitors want to keep them in condition for any future travels along the yellow brick road.

12. SMITHSON EVENTUALLY BECAME PART OF THE COLLECTION.

James Smithson's final resting place within the walls of the Smithsonian

In 1904, some 75 years after his death in Italy, Smithson’s remains were about to be disturbed. U.S. Smithsonian officials were alerted that his grave site would be displaced because of a nearby stone quarry expansion. The Institution took the opportunity to have his casket shipped to America so he could be interred at the site of his legacy—the Smithsonian itself. Escorted by Alexander Graham Bell, the casket traveled 14 days by sea. The body was entombed and topped off by a marker in the Smithsonian, where it remains viewable by the general public.

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