I frankly have had a hard time tracing the origins of the conspiracy theory that holds that the Smithsonian has been collecting anomalous ancient artifacts and shipping them off to Washington to be destroyed or otherwise purposely lost. This conspiracy theory surrounding the Smithsonian is so disorganized that it failed even to make it into Peter Knight’s 2003 Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia. But I have been able to pinpoint an origin point through a literature review and the process of elimination.
We know that the conspiracy theory did not exist in 1909, when the Arizona Gazette published its famous hoax that had Smithsonian officials openly and publicly discussing excavating a Tibetan-style tomb in the Grand Canyon. Had the Smithsonian conspiracy been a common belief back then, the hoax could not have been written. Similarly, there is no hint of a Smithsonian conspiracy in the 1932 book Death Valley Men by Bourke Lee. In that book, Lee describes a conversation with Death Valley residents who claimed to have found an underground city of caves filled with gold statues and gold-clad mummies, all lit by natural gas lamps. (This seems to be derivative of Frederick Spencer Oliver’s Dweller on Two Planets and works inspired by it, which posited a similar cave city beneath Mt. Shasta, as well as the highly similar pulp fiction stories of the era such as H. Rider Haggard’s archaeological thrillers and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s hollow-earth Pellucidar novels.) The men told Lee that they attempted to show the treasure to agents of the Smithsonian Institution, but that the Smithsonian refused to listen to them when a friend stole the treasure and a freak rainstorm, they claimed, rearranged the entire landscape of Death Valley, hiding the cave forever. Again, if the modern conspiracy theory existed at this point, we’d expect to read that the Smithsonian had actively sealed the cave and seized the treasure.
Therefore, we can establish that the conspiracy theory—and the conspiracy itself!—can’t predate 1932. So when did it start? The first rumblings that I can find emerge with the growth of creationism in the 1970s and 1980s, in which creationist authors begin to complain that the Smithsonian was unfairly conspiring to promote evolutionary theory. But it was not a widespread belief. In a review of “ancient mystery” books from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, I can’t find an assertion of Smithsonian conspiracies. Frederick J. Pohl found an 1892 Smithsonian publication (hiding through publicizing!) about a few hollowed-out wood coffins from Alabama that were sent to the Smithsonian, but when he enquired in 1950 as to their whereabouts the Smithsonian said that they had been received but were somehow lost. He did not consider this a conspiracy but rather of, in his words, “neglect.” The coffins, later determined to be troughs, were eventually found in a warehouse. It was the change in designation upon identification that led to the confusion over their whereabouts.
Robert Temple—who believes that the CIA was in fact conspiring against him—makes no mention of a Smithsonian conspiracy in The Sirius Mystery (1976), nor does Erich von Däniken discuss one in Chariots of the Gods (1969) or its immediate sequels. Alan Landsburg failed to mention it in his ancient mystery books of the 1970s.
In fringe books where we should expect to see a discussion of the Smithsonian conspiracy—those dealing with American prehistory—it is also absent. In 1950 S. N. Hagen praised the Smithsonian while defending the Kensington Rune Stone, and actually demanded that the Smithsonian take custody of the relic! Charles Michael Boland’s They All Discovered America (1961), written just before the acceptance of the L’anse-aux-Meadows site, when Viking excursions to America were not yet confirmed, fails to mention any Smithsonian conspiracy across hundreds of alleged pre-Columbian voyagers and sites he catalogs. Ivan Van Sertima’s They Came Before Columbus (1976) actually mentions the Smithsonian four times, but he praises them for publishing the “facts” about what he wrongly considered to be African skeletal remains found in pre-Columbian contexts in publications dating from as recently as 1975. Instead, he preferred to see the National Geographic Society and academia in general as engaging in an unofficial “conspiracy of silence.” Even David Childress himself—the man who first claimed a Smithsonian conspiracy to “suppress” the truth about the Grand Canyon—makes no mention of a Smithsonian conspiracy in any of his books published prior to 1993 that I have been able to review, but rather cites the Smithsonian as openly providing information about mysterious or diffusionist objects in their collections!
To put a cap on this: Stephen Williams’s Fantastic Archaeology, published in 1991 and covering virtually every fringe archaeology claim made from 1492 to 1991, has exactly zero mentions of a Smithsonian conspiracy to destroy or suppress artifacts, even while chronicling the Smithsonian’s early advocacy of lost white race theories. Williams does note, however, a growing discontent with the Smithsonian after 1894 and Cyrus Thomas’s Mound Builder report, as time and again Smithsonian scholars investigated fringe claims and published results declaring alleged artifacts ranging from the Tucson Lead Artifacts to the Kensington Rune Stone to be less than their promoters claimed them to be. But there was no claim of an organized conspiracy, only vague charges that “academia” in general was “close-minded.”
So what changed?
I think that Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) began the process of laying the groundwork for anti-Smithsonian conspiracies, not because it was so convincing but because of who watched it. At the end of the film, the Ark of the Covenant is locked away in a government warehouse, never to be seen again. David Childress cites this scene in his very first Smithsonian conspiracy piece, and he identifies himself as a “real-life Indiana Jones.”
In the early 1990s, David Childress seems to have kicked off the anti-Smithsonian conspiracy theme with his question of whether the Smithsonian was so intent on denying the existence of Tibetans (whom he misreads as Egyptians) in the Grand Canyon that they erased all evidence of the (hoax) 1909 expedition to the Grand Canyon:
Is the idea that ancient Egyptians came to the Arizona area in the ancient past so objectionable and preposterous that is must be covered up? Perhaps the Smithsonian Institution is more interested in maintaining the status quo than rocking the boat with astonishing new discoveries that totally overturn the previously accepted academic teachings.
To those who investigate allegations of archaeological cover-ups, there are disturbing indications that the most important archaeological institute in the United States, the Smithsonian Institute, an independent federal agency, has been actively suppressing some of the most interesting and important archaeological discoveries made in the Americas.
Childress cited Pohl’s 1950 inquiry into the Alabama wooden troughs as proof of a conspiracy because the Smithsonian reported in 1992 that these troughs could not be viewed because they were housed in an asbestos-contaminated warehouse. Childress called this suppression, and later writers, mostly on the internet, misunderstanding the situation, turned these into European stone coffins and claimed that the Smithsonian had intentionally destroyed them.
Childress further collected various secondhand reports, which he did not attempt to verify, of the Smithsonian collecting artifacts that then disappeared. One was a story from Ivan T. Sanderson reporting a letter he received from an engineer who claimed to have found giant skulls two decades earlier that the Smithsonian collected and made disappear. (The skull measurements provided are only slightly above average; Childress misunderstood how the skulls were measured.) Diffusionist John H. Tierney, Childress said, accused the Smithsonian of a disinformation campaign to discredit a set of 32,000 ceramic statues that included images of humans having sex with dinosaurs which were supposedly found in an ancient Mexican context. Further testing determined the figures were modern fakes.
He concluded his article with “proof” that the Smithsonian was covering up the 1909 “discovery” of an “Egyptian” tomb in the Grand Canyon—a story derived from an Arizona Gazette newspaper hoax of April 5, 1909. Childress, who introduced the mistake repeated by Scott Wolter that the newspaper was called the “Phoenix Gazette,” cites as “evidence” of a cover up two facts: (a) a staff archaeologist he spoke with by phone denied the Smithsonian had any Egyptian artifacts from a New World context and (b) the Smithsonian’s Board or Regents conducts meetings that are not open to the public. Sadly, every time the Smithsonian truthfully denied fringe claims, it only served as more proof for conspiracy theorists that something was being covered up.
Childress’s article was picked up by David Icke for The Biggest Secret (1993), which added aliens to the mix.
The story might have ended there since Childress’s sum total of “evidence” for a conspiracy was (a) official publications that publicized the allegedly suppressed material, (b) two missing wooden troughs that were not actually missing, (c) secondhand accounts of decades-old memories, (d) fake statues of dinosaurs having sex with humans, and (e) a newspaper hoax. But Childress had the good fortune to have his work widely distributed right at the time when perpetual presidential candidate Pat Buchanan decided to politicize the Smithsonian and accuse it of engaging in a conspiracy to denigrate American history.
In 1994, the Smithsonian announced plans to put the Enola Gay’s fuselage on display as part of an effort to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1995. Critics immediately complained that the exhibit focused too heavily on the Japanese who died in the bombing rather than on the military rationale for the use of the atom bomb. On November 6, 1994—only a year after Childress created his “Smithsoniangate,” Buchanan wrote in his syndicated newspaper column that the Smithsonian was engaged in
a sleepless campaign to inculcate in American youth a revulsion toward America’s past. Ultimate goal: Breed a generation of Americans who accept the Left’s indictment of our country, who refuse to defend her, and who decline to appeal the death sentence that Leftists the world over long ago pronounced on the United States and Western civilization.
This story is told more fully in the 1996 edited volume The History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for America’s Past by Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt.
The political furor over alleged bias at the Smithsonian lasted for a year and led to House Speaker Newt Gingrich appointing the conservative Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Tex.) to the Smithsonian Board of Regents to provide ideological “balance.” Johnson declared: “We’ve got to get patriotism back in the Smithsonian. We want the Smithsonian to reflect real America and not something that a historian dreamed up.” The politicization of the Smithsonian was complete, and the very real and significant damage done to the Smithsonian’s reputation opened the door to conspiracy theories.
While there is no direct connection between Childress’s claims and those of the right-wing politicians and media, the coincidence of timing served to reinforce Childress’s insinuations. Readers were subjected to multiple streams of information all telling them that the Smithsonian was engaged in a conspiracy to distort or fabricate American history. If politicians were certain that the Smithsonian was placing the (foreign) Japanese above traditional (read: white) Americans, then surely it was plausible that they had also been promoting the interests of Native Americans by denying or destroying the true pre-Columbian (read: white) heritage of America. The recent passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the subsequent groundbreaking for the National Museum of the American Indian reinforced the idea that the Smithsonian and the U.S. government were conspiring to bury the “truth” by emptying museum vaults and literally burying unwelcome artifacts in the ground in service of pro-Native American (and thus implicitly anti-white) propaganda. Many protested plans to repatriate some of the 14,500 Native American skeletons in the Smithsonian collection, and even observers favorable to the Smithsonian criticized the new American Indian museum for favoring subjective viewpoints and myth over documented history and fact.
In this environment, extreme conservatives had come to see the Smithsonian as an enemy, and this let creationists move from merely accusing the Smithsonian of pro-evolution propaganda to insinuating an outright conspiracy to suppress and destroy evidence of antediluvian giants (Nephilim) as well as evidence of Lost Tribes of Israel in America. However, were we would expect to see this discussed, in Charles DeLoach’s Giants: A Reference Guide from History, the Bible, and Recorded Legend (1995), the most famous creationist text on the subject, the conspiracy is absent; it had not yet filtered from Childress to creationism. Similarly, Graham Hancock’s attempt to imagine a global white master race in Fingerprints of the Gods (1995; check the book: he calls them “white” many, many times) makes no mention of a Smithsonian conspiracy, even though Hancock would eventually accuse NASA of one. In fact, in 2005’s Underworld Hancock praised the Smithsonian, as Ivan Van Sertima had before him, for actively investigating diffusionism, albeit from Japan rather than Europe.
Instead, the conspiracy theory percolated on the internet where David Childress’s 1993 article circulated widely, reproduced thousands of times. Ross Hamilton upped the ante in 2001 with his online article “Holocaust of Giants: The Great Smithsonian Cover-Up,” which as of today is not currently online at its original location (the server may be down). He offered not a lick of evidence for a conspiracy but instead implied one by listing publicly available Smithsonian documents referencing giants and then asking why the bones were accessible only to “government officials.” He did even less research than Childress into the Smithsonian and instead followed the bizarre notion that the conspiracy somehow was compelled to make publicly available descriptions and information about the bones they were supposedly charged with finding and destroying! Vine Deloria told Hamilton that he had come to believe that Raiders of the Lost Ark was an accurate depiction of Smithsonian policies. This was less a confirmation that giants existed than a reflection of the recently-passed controversy over Republican efforts aimed at getting the Smithsonian to change curatorial practices to downplay non-American and Native views.
Thanks to repetition across the internet, the Great Smithsonian Conspiracy slowly entered the mainstream of the alternative history movement. Alternative history luminaries like the Mormon hyper-diffusionist Wayne May and the Neo-Nazi convicted sex offender Frank Joseph (Frank Collin) on the fringe history side and L. A. Marzulli on the creationist and/or Nephilim side relentlessly promoted the idea that the Smithsonian was actively suppressing the truth, though they disagreed as to what truth was supposedly being suppressed. May and Joseph promoted the idea in the pages of Ancient American magazine where the idea would receive vocal and vociferous support from none other than Scott F. Wolter, who blasted the Smithsonian in its pages. Wolter carried over this distrust of the Smithsonian into America Unearthed, where he asserts the reality of a cover-up that did not exist before David Childress invented it out of half-truths, rumors, and lies.
The fact is that before Childress’s 1993 article there was no claim of a Smithsonian conspiracy, even in places where we would expect to see evidence of such a belief. As we end 2013, we can take a moment to curse Childress on the twentieth anniversary of his creation of a modern myth.