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.

Then he explains: “A factoid is about 75 percent fact and 25 percent toid,” he says.

The “toid” part is what keeps the scholars working, and why it’s so important to preserve even the earliest specimens.

Studying the cache

At the Marine Mammals collection, some of the earliest specimens date from the 1840s, when ornithologist and ichthyologist Spencer Baird (later to become secretary of the Smithsonian and U.S. commissioner of Fish and Fisheries) set about collecting. The collection is so comprehensive that it’s possible to trace many of the specimens illustrated in scientific journals and other articles back to the original.

“In most cases we still have them,” Mr. Potter says.

Why save all this? In part because it allows the institution to be more than just a large display case, no matter how complicated the bells and whistles designed to draw the casual visitor.

Researchers from all over the world come to the MSC, where they can compare the morphology of ancient and current members of the whale family.

Members of indigenous populations look at centuries-old models of canoes and kayaks to glean important information about design that may have been lost over the years.

And Smithsonian staffers work with fishery managers to minimize environmental and other impacts on threatened populations.

Clues in the bones

The Paul E. Garber complex, built within the past six months just outside the main building, is a case in point. Here a visitor can walk past rows and rows of the skeletal remains of aquatic mammals in a facility so large that Mr. Potter has constructed a Lego model to help him keep track of where everything is.

The Legos, colorful as they are, can hardly even hint at the treasures within.

The jaw bones of a northern blue whale call up memories of a 1903 expedition to Newfoundland, undertaken so Smithsonian staffers could make a model to hang in the Museum of Natural History.

“They went up in suits, ties and hats with boxcars of plaster and piles of excelsior,” Mr. Potter says.

“Then they trekked all the way to the whaling station, made the model and got it back down here in pieces before they put the whole thing together again in what is now the museum’s parking lot. Today we whine when we just have to carry a box or two.”

Even the signs and labels from exhibitions and expeditions gone by carry their own stories.

An old curiosity shop

But the real draw in the Garber complex is the bones, rows and rows of them, filling cabinets and tabletops in carefully organized sequences. The bones are even larger in an adjacent building in the Garber complex, in an area that houses, among other things, the remains of the largest mammal still living on Earth. This is the Southern Ocean blue whale, which can grow up to 90 feet long.

Other bones tell different kinds of story, like those of a whale that died recently off Wilmington, N.C. Deep cuts in the bones’ surface reveal what happened and provide a cautionary tale for the future.

“He got entangled in fishing line and starved to death because he couldn’t close his mouth,” Mr. Potter says.

Bones like those at the MSC were often displayed in the 19th century in what were termed “cabinets of curiosities,” usually wooden boxes with many drawers and cases. In the 19th century and well into the 20th, exhibits like these tended to be long on materials and short on interpretation.

Preserving the work

Something of that earlier aesthetic is present at the MSC, where the kind of wall text and carefully worded explanations that usually accompany exhibitions today would be superfluous.

In part of the anthropology section, for example, rows of cabinets are filled with the personal papers and recollections of many of the leading anthropologists of their day.

Hundreds of acid-free boxes preserve the original glass plates and photographs of early photographers and anthropologists, which — thanks to the introduction of digital technology — no longer have to be handled by researchers. (Once a glass negative breaks, that’s it.)

“Anyone doing a study of the photography of the Old West would come here,” says Mr. Homiak.

The collection includes a number of one-of-a-kind prints by the frontier photographer Edward Curtis, who before he died in 1952 made it his life’s work to document the vanishing West and the North American Indian. His wife destroyed his glass plates in the wake of a nasty divorce.

Today, even casual researchers can access many of these images through SIRIS, the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System at

Rare beauties

But there’s nothing like seeing the real thing.

An opened drawer at MSC reveals netsuke, small, intricately carved ivory pieces from Japan used to hold together pieces of a kimono, an unexpected bit of whimsy in the otherwise plain and efficient environment of the MSC.

Pull out a rack and you’ll see spears and harpoons collected from some of the earliest Smithsonian expeditions. Still another drawer holds a feathered cape from the Hawaii and Native American collections, leading observers to wonder about the time and energy it took to piece all those tiny feathers together.

“They say the more yellow, the more important the person,” says Mr. Homiak of the cape, which is mostly yellow feathers — plucked from blackbirds.

“The blackbird only has a few yellow feathers,” Mr. Homiak says, underscoring the painstaking nature of the work involved. “Of course, that’s a factoid.”

In the vaults

Most of the MSC’s holdings are found in its five huge buildings, known to staffers as “pods.” These mammoth expanses of climate-controlled space sit cheek by jowl, each set back from the next by about a third of its length in a stepped configuration.

The pods, sealed for both security and climate reasons, can be entered only from a corridor that runs along their fronts in a zigzag pattern that conforms to the setback of each building. On the opposite side of the corridor from the pods are staff offices, whose buildings repeat the staggered outline.

The newest vault, Pod Five, was completed just few months ago and fulfills all the latest requirements in museum-quality storage. There is even a “wet pod” for sea and other watery creatures.

For the living, too

Then there’s the Botany Collection, which operates in five greenhouses, each individually controlled for temperature, light and humidity. The largest of these is 2,000 square feet in area.

Here you will find some of the rarest plants in the world. Unlike other Smithsonian greenhouses that produce ornamental plants for decoration in the various Smithsonian museums, the plants here are destined for some very serious study.

“Our main goal is to try to get these plants to live,” says Mike Bordelon, collections manager of the botany greenhouse. “Many of these plants have never been in a pot before. We try to get them to flower so the curators can identify them.”

Other than the flora and fauna at the National Zoo, the botany collection is one of the few living collections the Smithsonian has on hand.

Among the oldest plants here are those collected in the 1970s. Among the newest are relatively unknown species that were collected during a recent expedition to Burma.

“Every time we go over there we find a unique new species,” Mr. Bordelon says. “Burma is really a center of plant diversity.”

But don’t expect the “tarted-up” hybrids you’ll see at your local nursery. These plants were collected in the wild, not grown to spec.

Because just like that glass negative or piece of whalebone, the importance of a piece isn’t always obvious to the casual observer. The real treasure can be what lies beneath, or on top, or alongside. You just need to look a bit longer and study a bit more — and above all remember what you have.

WHAT: “Behind the Scenes at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Support Center,” a Smithsonian Resident Associates tour

WHEN: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 22

WHERE: Depart by bus from the DeSales Street side of the Mayflower Hotel, 1127 Connecticut Ave. NW

TICKETS: Resident members $89, general admission $135

OTHER DETAILS: Catered box lunch provided. Tour requires a considerable amount of walking and standing. Note that what’s shown on each trip reflects the exhibits being prepared at the time.

INFORMATION: 202/357-3050 or

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