Odds and ends from the world's largest attic on view in New York

June 16, 1996|By Paul Goldberger | Paul Goldberger,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- Remember Father Guido Sarducci's classic "Saturday Night Live" routine, the "Five-Minute University"? The one in which he rushed through the highlights of every subject at breakneck speed? That's what visiting "America's Smithsonian," the vast exhibition that opened last week at the New York Coliseum, feels like.

History? Here's Abe Lincoln's hat. Sports? Step right up and see Arthur Ashe's tennis racket and a baseball signed by Babe Ruth. Culture? Yes, it must be, because there's a Henry Moore, and an Edward Hopper, and hey, that's an Andy Warhol over there.

But keep moving, because now you're at Natural History, and you don't want to miss those dinosaur bones or the fossils preserved in amber. Ancient artifacts? Nice Cycladic figure over in that case, circa 2500 B.C. Want some reminders of American ingenuity? Have a look at Samuel F. B. Morse's telegraph key, the Jarvik-7 heart and Alan B. Shepard's Freedom 7 space capsule. Like literature? Then you'll be sure to love the portraits of Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Music? Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet, thank you.


This is less an exhibition than "Supermarket Sweep" played on the turf of the museum. When I heard that the Smithsonian Institution planned to mark its 150th anniversary by organizing a national tour of highlights from the collections of its 16 museums, thought that such an exhibition would at least have the virtue of celebrating authenticity: In an age of virtual this and virtual that, putting so many real objects together would be a refreshing tonic.

Arthur Ashe himself really held that actual tennis racket. That is the real and true space capsule that sailed into the sky May 20, 1961, not a replica. Jacqueline Kennedy herself wore that actual gown. I imagined that people would come and they would have to be impressed with the power of authenticity.

Some hope

I still think there is some hope for this, but it will not be easy. For everything about this strange exhibition -- billed as the largest traveling museum show ever -- argues against the communication of any idea at all, even one so general and all-encompassing as the notion of authenticity. Yes, the objects are real, but this show is such a wild melange that it is impossible to think of it as representing anything other than Stuff.

The real title of this exhibition should be "All Kinds of Stuff the Curators Thought Would Interest People Who Don't Usually Go to Museums." The Smithsonian's nickname has always been "the nation's attic"; this time, it has actually presented itself like one, putting on the road odds and ends from the largest attic in the world.

It is impossible to review the show in a conventional manner: too much science, not enough art? Too much art, not enough science? Such questions are no more relevant than asking what a brand-new 50-foot carousel, built for this exhibition rather than taken from the Smithsonian's storerooms like everything else, is doing as the exhibition's centerpiece. Or what a Rodin is doing in the section about American art. (Both struck me as bizarre, but obviously they struck somebody else as entertaining, and I guess no more justification was necessary.)

Excite the unexcited

The point of the exhibition is to excite the unexcited, and by throwing absolutely everything onto the table, the Smithsonian may well achieve this. It's certainly an easy and painless way to get an introduction to more than a dozen museums and research institutions. Sort of like learning opera by listening to those "Highlights From Great Operas" recordings, "America's Smithsonian" is a "Highlights From Great Museums" tour: Easy listening comes to the museum experience. Just don't forget that the exhibition is not about ideas but about things. What they mean is for you to decide. The curators wouldn't dream of interfering with your right to say the exhibition means absolutely anything at all.

FTC Perhaps this is a logical reaction to the pressure the Smithsonian (and its Washington neighbor, the Library of Congress) have been under recently as a result of several exhibitions that were canceled or changed because of controversial curatorial viewpoints.

The Smithsonian canceled an exhibition for the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima when veterans groups protested the attention the exhibition would have given to arguments against having dropped the bomb; the Library of Congress gave in to protests against an exhibition about the architecture of slave quarters when it offended some black employees, and it put off a planned Freud exhibit when it found itself caught in the cross-fire between Freudian and anti-Freudian scholars.

No doubt the Smithsonian decided to opt for blandness this time: Who could complain about all these nice old things taken out of the attic? This time the point of view is the absence of a

point of view. No one would dare call that politically incorrect.

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