A Real “Nation’s Attic”

It’s a place with a two-foot-wide “dead zone,” a “wet” pod and a refrigerated room for the garbage

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We stopped at a special "clean room" designed for meteorite storage. Through the window I could see an examination box with rubber sleeves that you insert your arms into. The atmosphere in the box is dry nitrogen, which is relatively inert. A humid, oxygen atmosphere corrodes meteorites. The only other such chamber he knows of is at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

On to an anthropology processing lab: trays and trays of Indian beads, necklaces, bits of feather, animal bones and teeth, all arrayed in acid free boxes that will be placed in cabinets and then into the pods. There are boxes within boxes.

"We're still moving into this place," Wilcox remarked. Meaning that everything brought here from Natural History, American History or wherever is inventoried, cleaned and remounted in the safest, most efficient way known to science.

"Every item in the anthropology collection has a bar code on it with the catalog number matching the code on the box and fed into a computer," he pointed out. "A researcher can locate a specific object in seconds."

The significance, not to say the enormity, of this coding system came to me only gradually. Not so much when he showed me the hundreds and hundreds of kachina dolls being packed immovably in individual boxes (so they can be examined without being touched); not so much when I saw the Casas Grandes Mexican pots, old, delicate and implausibly valuable, and which in another era would have perched atop file cabinets along with Pacific Island mats, Maori shields and the curator's dusty hat.

No, it was when I was exposed to the spear and harpoon collection that I understood the importance of those bar codes.

We stood in one of the pods. Wilcox pulled out a vertical rack, rather like the racks where art galleries stash large paintings. On it were fixed a couple dozen lances and harpoons from all over the world. Another rack: spears, double-curve bows, arrows laid out in their acid-free boxes. ("They used to be just bound together in bunches.") Another: paddles from the Northwest, from Tahiti, from New Guinea. Indian mats and blankets, mostly rolled to save space. Some were so old that they still had the "poison" warning tags on them, dating from the days when many objects were treated with toxic preservatives.

I stared down this particular alley into the darkness 80 yards away. Every ten inches there was another handle, another rack. On both sides. Just for spears and paddles. All told, the Museum Support Center has more than 12 miles of cabinets.

The sheer scale of the Smithsonian Institution's collections was coming home to me.

We weren't done yet.


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