America's museum Part treasure trove, part research center, part attic, the mammoth Smithsonian Institution turns 150

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- On a hazy August morning, an endless stream of tourists pours from the subway, fanning across the Mall to the museums that make up the Smithsonian Institution.

Sporting sensible shoes, knapsacks, money belts and speaking a babble of languages, the tourists peer at a Diplodocus skeleton, Steinway's 100,000th grand piano, space suits of the first astronauts, the Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter where the first civil rights sit-in took place.

It is more than a day trip or vacation for the 28 million people who tour the Smithsonian's 16 museums and National Zoo each year. It is a pilgrimage to glean a better understanding of our world from the Smithsonian's mammoth trove of stuff.

With nearly 140 million objects, 6,000 employees, as many volunteers and international research operations, the Smithsonian's significance as a repository, scholarly resource and educational tool has no institutional parallel in the world. It is a staggeringly complex organism, as variable, fascinating and difficult to define as the nation itself. And all of it is free.

Today and tomorrow, at the Smithsonian 150th birthday gala, revelers will get a concentrated glimpse of the museum's breathtaking sweep. In doing so, they will heed the wishes of James Smithson, who left his entire estate to the United States to create an institution for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." The illegitimate son of an English duke, Smithson had never seen the United States, but he apparently had a keen intuitive sense of the energetic young country.

In 1836, seven years after Smithson's death, Congress voted to accept the amateur scientist's astonishing gift -- worth approximately $6.75 million in today's dollars. On Aug. 10, 1846, President James K. Polk signed an act of Congress establishing the Smithsonian Institution. The first museum opened in a newly constructed red sandstone castle in 1855.

Smithson's bequest launched the country on a binge of acquisition and research unmatched by any university or museum. The Smithsonian's willy nilly growth over the next 150 years mirrored that of the country. In fact, most of the museums' collections are stored in drawers or boxes in back rooms, never seen by the public.

With a passion

But the Smithsonian is about more than sheer size or quantity, writes James Conaway in "The Smithsonian: 150 Years of Adventure, Discovery and Wonder."

"The Institution may encompass science, history, art and technology, but it is imbued with national significance beyond the import of its collections, and -- just as importantly -- with the power of individual perception."

No wonder Americans harbor such passionate and contentious views about their national museum and its mission to hold artifacts in the public trust. The artifacts represent our very identity as a nation. Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, primitive folk music recordings, the First Ladies' inaugural gowns, the Komodo dragons at the National Zoo are a part of who we are. (Just yesterday, the rock that purportedly shows life once existed on Mars went on display at the Museum of Natural History.) So it matters greatly how they are displayed and used in the service of one historical interpretation or another.

If anything, last year's furor over the Enola Gay exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum accentuates the Smithsonian's role as an arbiter of the American experience. World War II veterans were furious over the proposed exhibit, "The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II." It detailed not only the bomb's role in ending in the war, but the legacy of its destructive capabilities. Ultimately, the political firestorm forced the museum to junk the entire exhibit and display the Enola Gay with almost no commentary or interpretation.

Such heated emotions are not new. From its inception, officials have haggled over the Smithsonian's raison d'etre. President Andrew Jackson wanted nothing to do with Smithson's bequest. Former president John Quincy Adams embraced it. Arguments have raged ever since.

But the success of the veterans in derailing a major exhibit sent an undeniable chill through researchers at the Smithsonian, which gets 76 percent of its annual $496 million budget from the federal government.

In the wake of the Enola Gay flap, an Air and Space exhibition on the Vietnam War was postponed. And last year, the Library of Congress indefinitely delayed a show about Sigmund Freud that had come under attack and closed an exhibit on slavery that some employees found offensive.

Marc Pachter, counselor to Secretary I. Michael Heyman for electronic communications and special projects, contends that the Enola Gay controversy could have been avoided if the exhibit, as originally planned, had taken into account "generational differences of opinion." The Smithsonian operates better as a "framer" of ideas and opinions, rather than a definitive voice that delivers the "final word," Pachter says. "It's not a question about not being controversial, it's finding a way to frame the controversy."

Public criticism shows that the public is paying attention, says Pachter, who cites letters with opening lines like, "I never expected the Smithsonian to " or, "How could the Smithsonian " That citizens care enough to express their ire is "fundamentally a compliment," says Pachter, a cultural historian with a decidedly upbeat take on national cacophony.

The future

Over the years, the Smithsonian has become increasingly sensitive to its presentation of history and humanity. When the National Museum of the American Indian opens in 2002, it will stand for all the hard lessons learned since 1846.

Once, Indians were callously presented as mere curiousities to Smithsonian visitors. Now, the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere will tell their own stories of tribal origin and identity in a way that conveys the value of their culture from within the culture itself.

On the Smithsonian's 150th anniversary, its staff, Congress and the public are still trying to define its future in a pivotal time of transition and instability. The museum complex is coping with the same budgetary pressures as the government. Ominous buzz words like downsizing, corporate sponsorship and decentralization have become part of the Smithsonian's active vocabulary.

The Smithsonian's heady era of expansion is over. The National Museum of the American Indian will occupy the last open space on the Mall. And though the National Air and Space Museum is planning an annex at Dulles Airport in Virginia, museum administrators know they cannot keep adding display and storage space.

"The Smithsonian has to look at new ways of being available," Pachter says. "We know we're not going to be building Smithsonian museums out there."

Pachter cites "America's Smithsonian," the huge 150th anniversary exhibit currently touring the country as one example of innovative Smithsonian outreach.The exhibit, which includes such icons as the ruby slippers from the film classic "The Wizard of Oz" and Amelia Earhart's flight jacket, has drawn huge crowds from Los Angeles to New York.

The Smithsonian has also launched a massive electronic Web site (http: //www.si.edu) that allows people who may never set ++ foot in Washington to explore the Institution. It is Pachter's hope that in the future, the programming innovations of Smithsonian cyber masters will become a source of revenue as customers tap into the Institution's computer network to filter, select and frame enormous amounts of online information.

Each Smithsonian museum has responded in its own way to the Institution's redefined goals. On any given day, Dr. Lonnie Bunch, associate director for historical resources at the Museum of American History, weighs the historical merit of a wealth of artifacts acquired by and donated to the museum, which contains nearly three million objects. He has just returned from Los Angeles, where he collected items from a shut-down California sweatshop, and today, he is pondering whether to ask Michael Johnson for his Olympic gold running shoes.

Gifts keep coming

With space at a premium, every acquisition must be carefully considered. "Clearly, the major challenge in terms of building a collection are space and the intellectual guidance that allows you to determine what you want to collect," Bunch says.

"What we always hope is that intellectual and scholarly considerations outweigh spacial considerations. The reality is that the Smithsonian, like any large museum, needs almost desperately additional space. There has been over the last 10 or 15 years a plethora of new curators [with] additional areas of scholarship that really would enhance our collections. We really haven't had all the room we need to to do justice."

As a result, American history curators cull through stuff more carefully, and large objects, such as cars or factory equipment, are no longer collected unless considered extremely important. Within these limitations, Bunch and his staff examine objects with an eye toward preserving material that will give scholars and the general public 100 years from now a vivid sense of "what it is like to live in the late 20th century."

But even as the Smithsonian runs out of space, it continues to receive unsolicited donations from ordinary Americans with an abiding reverence for their national museum. A woman's gym suit from the 1920s recently arrived in the mail as did a box of exquisite, handmade Indian dolls.

Last year, one man came to Washington to offer his most treasured possession. Charlie Biederman, 76, traveled from his Alaska home to the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum to donate a mail sled that he built and used during the 1920s and 1930s.

He died a month later. But his beloved sled now has a place in the nation's attic.

Pub Date: 8/10/96

Aretha Franklin gig tops party plans

The two-day birthday bash for the Smithsonian's 150th anniversary gets under way today with exhibits, debates and a concert featuring Aretha Franklin. A spectacular range of holdings in American art, African-American culture, postal history, zoology and other fields will be showcased today and tomorrow under two dozen pavilions on the Mall from Third to 14th streets.

Highlights include "Stories of the People," an exhibition at the Castle, which previews the National Museum of the American Indian, scheduled to open on the Mall in 2002.

Actor E.G. Marshall hosts debates on national culture, the Web, "Acting Your Age" and other hot topics.

The Center for Folklife sponsors a "Kids' Tent" in front of the Arts and Industries Building. On three stages, there will be musical performances ranging from Klezmer Plus to Six Nations Women Singers as well as numerous dance troupes.

Tonight at 6: 30 p.m., a concert featuring Aretha Franklin, Trisha Yearwood, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Mickey Hart and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra takes place on the Mall.

Mall activities run from 10 a.m. until 9: 30 p.m. today and from noon until 9: 30 p.m. tomorrow.

Parking around the Mall is limited and visitors are advised to use the Metro.

Call (202) 357-2700 or visit the Smithsonian Web site at: http: //www.150.si.edu/birthday.

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