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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"No one thought 14 years ago that molecular biology would become such a significant research tool in museums. But we were able to make space for it here; we remodeled an area for a gene analysis lab that ranks with those at the National Institutes of Health and other medical centers. Over the years we have revamped the air-handling system and safety practices to accommodate today's sophisticated curatorial research."

Gazing from a balcony out over one of the enormous pods, a warehouse space big enough to hold Citizen Kane's collections, or, as Wilcox muttered, like the one in the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I could believe that the Old Testament ark might indeed lie somewhere in that forest of boxes.

As we walk back past the wet pod I ask about human remains. "Tell you a story. John Wesley Powell [the Grand Canyon explorer] started arguing with a fellow geologist about who had the bigger brain. So they made a bet. In their wills they requested that a surgeon — who was later a visiting scientist at the Smithsonian — measure their brains. Powell won but he never knew it. Oh yes, his is here. In one of those jars."

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