- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 16, 2007

Remember that scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” in which the object of all that sweat and action, the legendary Ark of the Covenant, was in the end filed away and presumably forgotten among rows and rows of holdings in some endless underground warehouse?

It was enough to give even the most avid collector pause. How could you find it again? What good would it do anyone down there in the dark? And most importantly, how could you learn from it?

The conundrum was solved long ago by the Smithsonian Institution, which has been collecting valuable, legendary and one-of-a-kind objects as well as more than a few odds and ends since it began in 1846 — and is serious about preserving, maintaining and learning from them.

But its answer is not the nearest underground space or a dusty attic. Since 1983 it has kept its stuff at its Museum Support Center (MSC) in Suitland, a sprawling facility that provides state-of-the-art storage and conservation for more than 30 million of the nation’s treasures.

At the MSC, no tick is too tiny, no mandible too large for star treatment. And just because things are out of sight, doesn’t mean they are out of mind.

The hidden treasure

Usually off-limits to the general public, the MSC will throw open its doors, and reveal some of its secrets during a tour for the Smithsonian Resident Associates on Wednesday.

It’s a chance for the public to see a few favorite objects that have rotated out of view in the Smithsonian’s museums, as well as scores of pieces that were never intended for public display.

In addition, tourgoers will be able to take in the newest improvements in storage and conservation, techniques that will allow this generation’s children and grandchildren to appreciate a Yoruba carving, a bark cloth mask, or some of Teddy Roosevelt’s safari souvenirs.

Yes, your great-uncle may have told you that he gave his great-grandfather’s hand tools to the Smithsonian, and if he really did, they are probably still here, somewhere in the recesses of the facility — five massive buildings, each the size of a three-story-high football field, that sprawl over more than five acres of the Suitland site.

“Almost every day we find something we didn’t expect,” says Charles Potter, collections manager of the Marine Mammals section at the National Museum of Natural History, which is responsible for the bulk of the holdings at MSC.

Not the nation’s attic

Just don’t call it “the nation’s attic.” That term is beloved by the media but not by museum staffers, to whom the notion of cramming items willy-nilly into all available space is at odds with the idea of scholarly study.

At the MSC, the emphasis is really on the “institution” part of the Smithsonian. Here, collections are held, expanded, and carefully categorized for the purposes of scientific scholarship and investigation.

“I’d say we’re full of factoids,” says Jake Homiak, director of the Anthropology Collections and Archives Program at the National Anthropological Archives, which is part of the National Museum of Natural History.

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