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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Vince Wilcox is a man in love with a building. It's a love of labor for he'd already spent several years planning the Smithsonian's Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland, before he was named director while the gargantuan structure was being erected in 1981. Nowadays he is apt to be called as far away as Korea or Australia to advise other museums on how to build their own.

And they need him, since few people understand that while the "Nation's Attic" (as some people call the Smithsonian) may make a fine phrase, an attic is really a terrible place to store stuff.

"The problem is that space has different functions," Wilcox told me. "And architects know people space better than thing space. I was in the main painting storage room of a brand-new museum a while ago, and the entire room was humming. The paintings were actually vibrating. I saw that the main air-handling duct for the whole building had been run right through the room. See, it had been labeled 'storage' on the plans, so the architect just assumed it wouldn't need to be a sensitive space. They had to relocate the thing at huge expense."

Even in Washington, he added, some museums have badly designed work spaces: curving or sharply angular corridors may look beautiful, but they're the devil for moving large objects. Once when he had to move some 20-foot harpoons through a museum, he solved the corridor problem by maneuvering them through a window, along the outside of the building and back in by another window. "The windows have been sealed off since," he chuckled. "I have no idea what they'll do now."

A museum's goals are contradictory in the first place: you want to preserve things forever yet also use them for research and education. "I'm always thinking about future generations," explained Wilcox, "and how I can protect the unique, irreplaceable objects in these collections for them. Ideally we'd seal these items off in a dark, absolutely dust-free, pest-free, strictly climate-controlled chamber. But people need to be able to study them, and human contact is the biggest cause of deterioration."

On that note he took me around the vast building, concentrating on anthropology, his own area. He used to be collections manager for the anthropology department at the National Museum of Natural History and earlier was curator of the research branch at the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, in New York. You should realize that the Support Center contains 500,000 square feet of space, so it's one of the largest buildings in the Smithsonian roster. Laid out in an echelon of four zigs and four zags with a wide corridor called the "Street" down the center like a spine, it has offices and labs on one side and four giant storage pods on the other.

These pods are something special. Each is about the size of a football field and has three stories. They each have their own environmental controls and security systems. They are kept at 70 degrees and 50 percent relative humidity with a leeway of 2 percent, an expensive proposition were it not for the fact that they don't house people. The absence of human body heat and comings and goings vastly simplifies the situation.

The people in the labs and offices do enjoy air so thoroughly filtered that there are virtually no pollens. Ideal for people with allergies, but you can't open your window, have office plants or eat or drink at your desk. To make up for all that and for being so far from the Mall, staffers can plant gardens on the landscaped grounds or play badminton during lunch hour.

Walking down the Street, I noted the skylights nearly 40 feet up, the great rivers of ducts and cables, the occasional Indian canoe or plesiosaur skeleton on the walls.

"We were the first Smithsonian building to be fully wired for Internet communication," Wilcox announced proudly. "And with all the utility lines and even the high-pressure steam line for the molecular systematics lab out in the open here, there's easy access for maintenance."


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