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DVD Review: Stories From The Vaults

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Stories From The Vaults is a humorous and peculiar series of 30-minute shows that feature a behind the scenes look at the Smithsonian Institution's museum complex. Hosted by actor Tom Cavanagh (Ed, Eli Stone), it is produced by Caragol Wells Productions. It showcases the Smithsonian's rarest treasures and features experts who meet with Cavanagh. The series premiered on Saturday, September 1, 2007 on Smithsonian Networks. Season one had seven episodes.

The Smithsonian was founded by a donation by a British scientist named James Smithson more than 150 years ago. It was founded for the "increase and diffusion" of knowledge among men. It was a hybrid public/private partnership that was signed into law on August 10, 1846.

While the vast majority of the collections in the Smithsonian have never been publicly displayed to the public, this series tries to uncover some of these treasures in order to share them with viewers.

Episode 1, "Famous Donors" explores a few of the 50,000 thousand objects that come in to the collection each year. In this episode you will see items that were donated by Teddy Roosevelt (animal), John Steinbeck (marine life), and Phyllis Diller (jokes).

Episode 2, "Superlatives" looks at what it takes to stand out in a collection that is in excess of 151 million objects. Here we look at "The Most Misunderstood," "The Best," and "The Tiniest".

Episode 3, "No Place Like Home" recounts that while the Smithsonian is the home for the collective memory of the nation, it also contains information on the homes that have been invented by everything from humans to insects, from spacesuits to roundworms.

Episode 4, "Beauty" may only be skin deep, but it has a lot to reveal about what we call beautiful. In this episode we will see from three viewpoints the beauty of orchids, advertising, and ants.

Episode 5, "Firsts" takes a look at what is meant as number one. From commercial aviation through the cockpit of a jet, to the legacy and light bulbs of Thomas Edison, and the pre-history of the video game revolution, you will see what it takes to be first.

Episode 6, "Life after Death" examines that while life and death both have a place at the Smithsonian, what exactly is the difference between the two. It is a mystery in both art and religion and the researchers take on this subject.

Episode 7, "Random" is not what the collection housed here is and the range is extraordinary. Because of the tremendous breadth and scope of the collection, it is probably that it has answers to questions that have not even been asked.

While at times Stories From The Vaults seems to be pushing too much too quickly, I am not sure if it is because they are trying to fit in a lot into a segment, or because the host is running from here to there. At times it seems that it might have been better to focus on a single theme for the show, and explore it more deeply.

That said, Stories From The Vaults is both educational and entertaining. It is quirky, and even if you think you know everything, I think you will still learn something new. If you have ever been to the Smithsonian, you know that you can only scratch the surface during a visit or two. With 19 museums, nine research centers, and over 136 million pieces, there is a lot to see and this video will give you some idea the richness of what is available.

The video runs 189 minutes and the anamorphic widescreen image is superb. Even though many of the scenes are shot in lower lighting situation, there are no resulting problems apparent in the quality. The only extra are some commercials for the Smithsonian Channel shows. It seems that this would have been a great opportunity to have some behind the scenes of the museum it self.

The energetic Tom Cavanagh does a great job of mixing the right amount of humor, investigation, and education. Stories From The Vaults recently received a Gold World Medal from the New York Festival as well as a Parents Choice Gold Award for Excellence. If you are a history buff as I am, I highly recommend this video.

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About T. Michael Testi

Photographer, writer, software engineer, educator, and maker of fine images.
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