One of the world's best collections of incandescence will move next month from a posh Mount Vernon dentist's office, where it was privately housed for 40 years, to the Baltimore Museum of Industry on Key Highway.
Dr. Hugh F. Hicks, a dentist with a penchant for light bulbs, acquired about 50,000 in his 79 years - he died a year ago this month - and displayed them in the basement of his office near the Washington Monument.
Hicks was known to occasionally run downstairs to tend to his collection while patients waited in the dentist's chair.
Baltimore Museum of Industry officials believe the best pieces of the Hicks collection - which drew the attention of the Smithsonian - will tell a tale of human curiosity, and of how museums are made and minded over time.
"We believe it tells a great story of how a museum comes together," said Paul Cypher, the Museum of Industry's executive director. "It shows how the passion and learning turns into forming a collection, how a museum works, how the industry works."
Hicks' death created a difficult decision for his family: what to do with his wide-ranging collection of light bulbs, including a few from Thomas Edison's lab during the early days of invention as well as the world's smallest light bulb, once used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. A social history of America in the 20th century is reflected in the seemingly ordinary objects - street lamps, early Christmas lights and neon beauty parlor signs - in the Hicks collection.
"In collecting, there is that passion and joy of bringing stuff together," said Bernard S. Finn, curator of the electrical collection at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian. "But this is real history, tangible connections to the past and a turning point to technology. It was light bulbs that brought electricity into the home."
Finn said the collection will be enhanced by having trained eyes and hands sifting through the thousands of bulbs to present the most significant portion to the public - most likely by the fall. He said Hicks' devotion to light bulbs reminded him of other Baltimore museums devoted to a single subject, such as visionary art.
"What's so exciting is that whatever they do will be done with a professional museum background," Finn said. "Baltimore is full of intriguing small museums. If the Museum of Industry can draw attention to this eclectic feature of Baltimore, that would be almost unique."
Finn and Harold D. Wallace, a Smithsonian specialist who knew Hicks and helped him to catalog the collection, helped the family make the match with the Museum of Industry. They knew the lifelong Baltimorean wished to have it remain in the city.
In any case, the Smithsonian and its attic full of Americana could only take certain pieces, not the whole collection, Finn said.
Frances Hicks Apollony, 47, a Homeland resident, said she often asked her father to consider where he wanted the collection to go, but they never finished that conversation. She and her sister, Louise Smith of Stephens City, Va., estimated that renovating the property to become a public museum would cost $4 million, which was too much to spend.
So it was clear the era of the quaint, admission-free Mount Vernon Museum of Incandescent Lighting would end. The townhouse will go up for sale and the collection's new home will be on the other side of the harbor.
"It's a great match because he grew up in Baltimore and he loved everything about the cultural district," Apollony said, noting that the collection was meant to be shared. "He was a kid at heart, and he loved to give tours to schoolchildren."
She recalled that her father was never off the clock when it came to his collecting - even searching for light bulbs that washed ashore at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware.
Cypher of the Baltimore Museum of Industry said he understood the daughters' desire that the entire collection remain intact in Baltimore, which will happen. But he could not deliver a promise to display the entire collection -most of which will go into storage.
But Cypher, 36, a newcomer to Baltimore, said the Hicks collection could offer visitors more than a lesson on illumination. It also serves as a powerful example of how an individual inspired to investigate a corner of life can single-handedly create a museum.
"I wish I had met him," Cypher said. "Dr. Hicks had to do public relations, displays, themes and his own curating. It was a one-man show."
Apollony said the centerpiece of the collection is a giant 50,000-watt light bulb, built on the 50th anniversary of Edison's invention of the practical lamp. "This was Daddy's pride and joy," she said.
There is a portrait of Edison and a vintage sign that assures visitors that electric light "is in no way harmful to health, nor does it affect the soundness of sleep."
Finn, the Smithsonian curator, said Hicks preserved a valuable chapter of history, one that opened on New Year's Eve in 1879 when Edison first lit up his laboratory.
"You can look at this as a quirky hobby, but for those of us in the museum world, we realize that if you collect in depth, that embraces a significant part of historical development," Finn said. "In this case, lighting was a pretty important social development."