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

Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland
Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland National Museum of Natural History

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."

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.

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.

"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."

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.