In drawers somewhere else I saw magnificent old Indian dresses of soft leather and beads. I saw rare feather decorations, snowshoes, dolls. In another pod I was introduced to a whole herd of elephant skulls. Some of them weigh hundreds of pounds and can hardly be moved, so the racks that hold them are on wheels for better access.
One skull had a yellowed tag: "September 1909, Th. Roosevelt."
"You know, the skull from the elephant in the Natural History rotunda is here. That elephant is just a stuffed skin. We have the tusks, too. The ones at the rotunda are fake. The real ones are too heavy for the type of display built there."
In the next row: hundreds of antlers. Deer antlers, antelope antlers, fantastic moose antlers six feet across, all there waiting to be studied.
We came upon some researchers taking pictures of bugs, as well as a woman nestled among the stacks with a notebook and a recorder, carefully investigating some of the millions of pinned insects. In some locations gloves are needed: Wilcox has seen more than one careless handler's fingerprint immortalized on the side of some ancient object, etched there over the years by acids on the surface of human skin.
The pods, each with insulated walls a foot and a half thick, are surrounded by a two-foot-wide pest-control "dead zone." A refrigerated refuse room also helps deter insects. "The Smithsonian needs another 3.5 million square feet," said Wilcox. "So we've planned for expansion to be done over the next 20 or 30 years. The building was designed so it can be added onto easily."
Here we are in the "wet" pod, among millions of specimens in glass jars, bottles, tanks and tubs. I saw a few of the thousands upon thousands of sea creatures, preserved in 75 percent ethanol. I saw in a bathtub-size tank three or four giant octopuses that looked to be six feet long.
"This one was collected in 1914 by the Pacific Halibut Survey, a famous expedition," said Wilcox, reading another old label. "Why?" I asked. "Why save a 1914 octopus?"
"It's a baseline for research. You fish up an octopus today from the same area where these were found, and you compare the size and morphology. Trace elements such as mercury. There is a vast amount of information locked up here in these cabinets and tanks. You just never know when some new research technique will make these specimens really useful."
Back in the '20s, he recalled, the Museum of the American Indian threw out piles of old potsherds from a Manhattan dig. Forty years later, when carbon dating and other techniques had been invented, scientists fumed over the loss of those sherds.