The Creepiest, Weirdest Items in The Smithsonian’s Archives

With a history lasting almost 175 years, and 19 award winning museum locations – The Smithsonian Institution is considered one of the richest collections of historic artifacts. It’s exhibits cover natural history, technical innovation, space travel and a host of oddities from a variety of time periods.

It is estimated that the Institute owns around 154 million items in their vast collection. Only around 1 percent of these are currently on display, leaving a vast library of curiosities hidden from public view. Many of these collections are held at the Smithsonian Museum Support Center, in five numbered buildings, called “Pods,” each about the size of a 3-story-tall football field. The pods total 435,000 square feet of storage space.

With such a huge assortment of historical items, there are quite a few creepy, bizarre and unsettling artifacts hidden away in these vast pods. Here’s a few stand out spooky items from The Smithsonian’s archives.

Automaton. Mechanical doll, “The Wonderful Creeping Baby”. 2011.0204.01a.

With the turn of a key, this doll appears to crawl along a flat surface. Inside the doll’s body is a spring-driven brass mechanical movement that actuates the arms and legs in imitation of crawling. But the doll actually rolls along on two concealed wheels.

This mechanical toy is part of a fascinating continuum of figures built to imitate human life. This long Western tradition stretches from ancient Greece through the mechanical automatons of the Enlightenment, through wind-up toys to contemporary robots and other machines with artificial 1900


1993.0168.03; Puppet, Hand Puppet made by Bil Baird.

This carved wooden clown hand puppet with a white face was created by Bil Baird for Miguel V. Varell, circa 1927-1928. It is wearing a peaked orange cap with black trim, red and yellow collar, green jacket, red, green, and yellow pants, and red shoes. It has carved hands, a yellow hand skirt for puppeteer, and a metal hanging hook.Originally from Budapest, Hungary, Miquel Varell immigrated to the United States after World War I in search of a better life.

Despite a lack of any formal training in the theater, Varell’s lifelong love of puppetry inspired him to establish a puppet company based on a European style Grand Guignol, or Punch and Judy, traveling show. But Varell needed someone to create the puppets based on his own specifications. He approached Tony Sarg, his friend and well known puppeteer, to find someone who could create the puppets according to his specifications. Sarg recommended his young apprentice, Bil Baird, to create the puppets for Varell’s theater.


Puppets, pedestals, marimba, backdrop, The Haines’ circus puppet characters.

Haines brought the spirit of the circus to hundreds of people in an around Philadelphia through their elaborate puppet shows.The Haines’ circus puppet characters included Tightrope Star, Mitzi from Vienna, Boxers Kanga and Roo, Patagonian Pigs Pinkie and Patti, Tony the Dog in clown outfit, performing bears Laska, Pete and Repete, Flying Trapeze Artist Tim, Mugsy the Barker, and a Ringmaster.

These two dancing pandas known as Pete and Repete are stuffed wire forms covered with black and white plush fabric. They have flat wooden paws and feet painted back and they are both wearing a red velvet collar decorated with silver sequins. Two long wires are attached to neck and waist, and are each operated with a wooden handle.


Egg prop from the film “Alien.” 2003.0347.01.

Prop egg used in the marketing of the 1992 film Alien 3, including use in the movie’s promotional trailers. The egg is a version of the one depicted on the poster for the original 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien. That iconic poster, designed by Philip Gips, is remembered for its stark minimalist design and tagline “In space no one can hear you scream”.

The egg is made from a blend of wax and latex attached to a plaster and wire mesh form. The coating is pitted and cratered, designed to look organic and otherworldly. The egg glows green from an uneven crack in the center, a glow effect achieved with a piece of green mylar covering the inside of the egg and a light shining through. The egg is attached to a tall, metal, “L-shaped” frame. The back half of the egg opens up to reveal a small flourescent tube and the green mylar.


Giant Squid Eye, 2008

Giant squid have the largest eyes in the animal kingdom—at up to 10 inches in diameter, they are the size of a dinner plate. These massive organs allow giant squid to detect objects in the lightless depths where most other animals would see nothing.

The giant squid is among the largest invertebrates on Earth—with lengths measuring nearly 60 feet. Giant squid can descend to 6,500 feet and are known to be aggressive hunters.

The eyes, on either side of the head, each contain a hard lens. An image is focused by changing the position of the lens, as in a camera or telescope, rather than changing the shape of the lens, as in the human eye.


Ghost Clock, Wendell Castle, born Emporia, KS

At first glance Ghost Clock appears to be a grandfather clock hidden under a white sheet. However, a closer look reveals a masterful deception: this entire sculpture was hand-carved from a single block of laminated mahogany. With its meticulous detail, Castle re-created in wood the contours of soft, supple cloth, then completed the illusion by bleaching the “drapery” white and staining the base of the “clock” a walnut brown.

This work is the last in a series of thirteen clocks the artist created in the 1980s; unlike the others, it lacks an inner mechanism. Its haunting stillness and silence suggest eternity–the absence of time.


Devil Horns Crystal Brass Knuckles (Lefty) 2015

Debra Baxter, Devil Horns Crystal Brass Knuckles (Lefty), 2015, quartz crystal and sterling silver, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist in honor of Joanna and David Baxter


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