Smithsonian to open its treasure chest for traveling exhibit

March 28, 1995|By Paul Anderson | Paul Anderson,Knight-Ridder News Service

The Smithsonian Institution, often referred to as the nation's attic, will observe its 150th anniversary in 1996-97 by sending trunk loads of its treasures on the road to a dozen cities, officials announced yesterday.

The 150 traveling items will range from George Washington's battle sword to Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet, from Amelia Earhart's flight suit to the Apollo 11 command module, and from Thomas Edison's light bulb to the sequined ruby-red slippers worn by Judy Garland in "The Wizard of Oz."

And yes, kids, there will be dinosaurs -- fossils, that is.

The tour will begin in Los Angeles next February, then move on in April to Kansas City, Mo. The 10 other destinations are yet to be decided. The 50,000-square-foot exhibit will spend six weeks in a convention center in each city.

"This is the first time the Smithsonian will bring to the American people . . . so many icons of their history, objects of the highest caliber and historical significance," I. Michael Heyman, the Smithsonian's secretary, said yesterday.

To finance the tour -- as well as a series of other special exhibits and celebratory events -- the Smithsonian is enlisting corporate sponsors for the first time. A marketing firm has been hired to seek 10 corporations to put up $10 million each. Only one has signed a contract so far: the Discover Card.

The sponsors will be able to use the Smithsonian's name and display a 150th anniversary logo on their products, and they will be allowed to advertise at the traveling exhibit sites, among other tie-ins, according to Rob Prazmark, president of 21st Century Marketing Group.

Mr. Heyman acknowledged that the commercialization "presents us with both challenges and great opportunities," but he said it was necessary in a time when federal funds and philanthropic donations were tight. It also will ensure that the traveling exhibit will be free to visitors, just as there is no entrance fee at the institution's 16 museums, galleries and the National Zoo in Washington.

Contracts will guarantee the Smithsonian approval over the content of all advertising, Mr. Heyman said, and a "style committee" of museum directors has been appointed "to make sure it is correctly done."

Michael Carrigan, who is heading a team that is selecting the items for the traveling exhibit, said that the sponsors would not be consulted on the content of the displays -- although their sponsorships might influence which cities the exhibit visits.

Mr. Prazmark, whose firm is based in Greenwich, Conn., said he devised the commercial tie-in after visiting the Museum of American History with his children in 1991 and noticed a plaque that said the Smithsonian was founded on Aug. 10, 1846. That's when President James K. Polk signed a law creating the board of regents that operates the Smithsonian, based on a bequest of about $500,000 from British scientist James Smithson.

Mr. Prazmark made a pitch to the regents, saying the zTC anniversary offers "a unique opportunity" for the Smithsonian to raise its visibility and generate private support to expand its outreach. For example, he is proposing a television special based on a two-day celebration at the National Mall on Aug. 10-11, 1996, complete with fireworks.

Mr. Heyman, who took over as top administrator last September, said his chief mission was to make the institution more accessible to Americans, especially those who can't travel to Washington. "This is extremely exciting for us as we look forward to reaching out to the American people on such a grand scale," he said.

Visitors will enter the traveling exhibit through a replica of the Smithsonian's distinctive headquarters, the red-brick castle designed by James Renwick and opened in 1855. It will contain a working carousel, a Victorian-style ice cream parlor, a large-screen video and a stage for live performances.

Among other items planned for displays are: gowns worn by first ladies; the Hooker starburst diamonds; the Wright Brothers' plane the Vin Fiz, which made the first transcontinental flight; Tecumseh's tomahawk; Mathew Brady photographs; an African slit gong; Rodin's "Walking Man" statue; an 1832 portrait of a Native American warrior by George Catlin; and a spacesuit worn by Apollo 15 commander David Scott, who fell several times during his 1971 moon walk and left lunar dust ground into the suit's knees.

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