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

August 10, 1996|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

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.

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