The Art of Getting a Hollywood Prop Into a D.C. Museum

Courtesy of Paul Morigi/SMITHSONIAN
Kevin Spacey at the Feb. 22 unveiling of Yeo’s Underwood portrait

The Smithsonian collection includes film and TV artifacts, but not all are welcomed.

This story first appeared in the May 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Getting your pop-culture artifact into the Smithsonian depends on a few factors — including what it's made of. "We try not to collect too much plastic because it's a new material and it deteriorates badly," says Valeska Hilbig of the National Museum of American History, which recently rejected a famous movie prop for that reason. (She won't say which.) The surest way into the collection is an invitation, but studios regularly make offerings — sets, props, costumes, scripts — hoping they'll be accepted. In 2013, 30 artifacts from 13 Warner Bros. films were accepted, including Christopher Reeve's Superman suit. Lately, the Smithsonian has shown an openness to controversy, accepting Sony's gift of two bags of "Blue Sky" meth from Breaking Bad. ("If you had told me there'd be crystal meth in the same museum as ... Dorothy's ruby slippers, I'd have told you you were using too much of Walter White's product," Vince Gilligan joked at the time.)

The National Air and Space Museum was gifted a model of Star Trek's Enterprise by Paramount in 1974, and the National Portrait Gallery houses dozens of star portraits, including renderings of Katy Perry and Brad Pitt. "We work directly with artists," says spokeswoman Bethany Bentley, citing a portrait of House of Cards' President Frank Underwood that curators discovered while visiting the London studio of Jonathan Yeo, who has painted Kevin Spacey several times. A Hollywood caveat: While acceptance into the Smithsonian guarantees the best preservation, it doesn't guarantee an audience. Only 1 percent of the collection is on display at any given time.

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