Smithsonian moves to lend out some of its millions of warehoused items About 2 dozen cities offer plans for artifacts


WASHINGTON - For more than 150 years, the Smithsonian Institution has been one of the world's great packrats, collecting items from the mundane to the magnificent. Now the Smithsonian is cleaning out the nation's attic.

Like a dowager showering treasurers on far-flung relatives, the museum complex is ready to open its storage vaults to worthy recipients. Cities across the country are lining up for a chance to borrow some of the 139 million objects usually kept from public view.

In Arlington, Texas, community leaders hope to open an Origins of the Southwest museum featuring items from the Smithsonian's extensive collection Indian artifacts. In Bethlehem, Pa., organizers of a new National Museum of Industrial History covet an 1875-vintage Otis elevator, a 34-ton locomotive and other heavy equipment from the 1800s.

In Scottsdale, Ariz., officials are looking for historical milestones from the Smithsonian's collection to help turn an abandoned shopping mall into a Museum of Progress. Nearly two dozen other cities have offered similar plans involving the long-term borrowing of Smithsonian artifacts.

"We're really trying to find as many ways as we can to share the Smithsonian," said Michael Carrigan, who is overseeing the loan program. "The idea is to try to find homes for collections appropriate to different regions. Anything is up for consideration."

Museum officials stressed they are not conducting a giveaway program. Cities and museums interested in the Smithsonian's holdings will have to pick up the tab for shipping and maintaining the items. In addition, the regional displays have to meet the Smithsonian's stringent standards.

Cities seeking a piece of history will find a lot to choose from. The Smithsonian most tourists know - 15 museums and galleries in Washington and New York, plus the National Zoo - displays only about 1 percent of the institution's holdings.

The other 99 percent, ranging from prehistoric pottery to used spacesuits, is tucked away in locked hallways and out-of-the-way warehouses. Most of the museum's hidden treasures are housed in more than two dozen buildings in Suitland, Md., about eight miles southeast of the main Smithsonian complex on the Washington Mall.

The unseen holdings are every bit as diverse as the public exhibits. If tours were allowed, and they generally aren't, visitors could see a Soviet surface-to-air missile undergoing restoration, President Ulysses S. Grant's inaugural carriage, a mint-condition cherry red 1963 Corvette and a mammoth greeting card collection.

The main storage facility, which covers 4.5 acres, is divided into four "pods." Each pod is the size of a football field, three stories high. From the outside, it looks like a nondescript factory, but beyond the guarded entrance is another world.

Pull open a drawer in one of the two anthropology pods and you might find bundles of poison-tipped darts from Ecuador, all marked with red skulls and crossbones warning of the potential consequences of an accidental finger prick. Nearby, thousands of spears and paddles hang on specially designed pull-out racks.

Other cabinets hold a collection of about 900 prehistoric artifacts from a cave on the Tularosa River in New Mexico, including some early sandals.

"We have some of these that literally look like they just came off somebody's foot yesterday," said Deborah Hull-Walski, the collections manager.

Another pod holds shelf after shelf of animal skulls, skeletons and antlers. In a section devoted to elephant skulls, one specimen is marked with a yellowed, handwritten tag noting the date of receipt, Sept. 1, 1909, and the donor, "Th. Roosevelt," as in former President Theodore Roosevelt.

A third pod looks and smells like a mad scientist's basement. The dimly lit warehouse, which reeks of formaldehyde, is devoted to the Smithsonian's "wet collection," an eerie array of animal carcasses preserved in jars and vats.

A final pod is reserved for oversized items, including a stone head from Easter Island and decorative totem poles.

Although most of the Smithsonian's storage facilities are off-limits to tourists, they are heavily used by researchers and scientists. Museum spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said some of the stored items are of little interest to the more than 28 million tourists who flock to the Smithsonian museums each year.

"No visitor needs to see all of the different specimens of beetles," she said. "A researcher needs to see that. A visitor doesn't."

But there is plenty tourists might want to see, and the Smithsonian is ready to share its riches.

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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