Curiosities and Wonders

Where do you put all those treasures?

Keeping our valuable collections (Chinese ivory) from risk. Jeff Tinsley, Department of Anthropology, SI

Behind-the-scenes facilities at the Smithsonian can be more distant than you might imagine. The National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), for example, has its principal storage facility, the Museum Support Center (MSC), in Maryland, a 20-minute drive from downtown Washington, D.C. The MSC is a technically sophisticated complex that keeps some of the nation’s most valuable museum collections from risk and the encroachments of time.

When NMNH opened in 1910, it was the National Museum plain and simple, a grand repository for Smithsonian holdings that had outgrown their earlier homes in the Castle and what is now the Arts and Industries Building. The immense museum would take decades to fill, but even its great extent was no match finally for the Institution’s acquisitive reach. By the 1960s, the collections occupied the building’s galleries, storage areas and attic, which made the essential task of stewardship that much more difficult for the museum’s staff.

After a decade and a half of planning and two years of construction, the Museum Support Center was dedicated in 1983. The plan of the complex is best appreciated from the air: four windowless storage pods, each three stories high and the size of a football field, with insulated walls 18 inches thick, fit neatly one to another, top to bottom, in a zigzag pattern across the landscape. A 20-foot-wide corridor, the core avenue of movement through the facility, separates the pods from a smaller, counterpart stretch of offices and laboratories. In the laboratories, various units, most but not all from within NMNH, conduct research that draws upon the collections. Here, for example, a long-term initiative between Smithsonian entomologists and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research uses the Institution’s extensive mosquito collection to do disease-transmittal research that advances public health around the world.

The challenge in building the MSC was to create an environment that could cope with the astonishing diversity of NMNH collections: botanical and zoological specimens; minerals and meteorites; fossils; archaeological findings; the cultural heritage of many peoples and nations. The flexibly configured MSC pods accommodate everything from microscopic algae to, variously, the skulls of whales and elephants (looking like pieces of abstract sculpture), Chinese ivory chess sets, a huge wooden Buddha, a 65-foot-long war canoe from the American Northwest—the list goes on and on. Moreover, the items must be kept available to researchers who visit the MSC daily to explore the collections.

Each separate object (or class of objects) requires conditions that best favor its survival. Wood must not dry and crack, fabrics not fray or fade; skins must stay supple, and fish remain intact in their jars of preservation fluid. The anthropological holdings, which overflowed the spaces of the downtown museum, have particularly benefited from the move to the custom quarters. Open a cabinet full of Native American moccasins, for example, and you’ll find the footwear labeled, shaped with tissue paper and arrayed in careful rows.

The highest tribute the Smithsonian can pay the items in its care is to secure them for the future, and that’s done daily on the vast ordered premises of the MSC. In an earlier century, there existed, as precursors of the modern museum, what were called cabinets of wonders and curiosities. The MSC is beyond anything the collectors of that earlier time could have foreseen, but they would have recognized a similar impulse behind their enterprises and our own. Along every tier, behind every door and protective curtain, the MSC still keeps wonders.

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