Tiny Treasures

From mosquitoes to mementos, the smallest items in the Smithsonian’s collections can be the most useful

Great things come in small packages. What's true of gifts we give and receive is also true of the Smithsonian's vast collections. Some of the smallest, easiest-to-overlook objects—an insect, say, or a button issued during a presidential campaign—are important for scientists and historians, and for all of us.

As of 2003, the Institution's museums held 143.7 million items, the great majority of which were insects, fossils and invertebrate animals currently housed at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). In fact, NMNH accounts for 88 percent of the Institution's holdings. And of the more than 145,000 new items that all the museums acquired in 2004, NMNH accounted for some 125,000. Many of these are tiny organisms, but the research they make possible holds enormous value.

Today, research entomologists with the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research work side by side with NMNH specialists to understand how particular species of mosquitoes carry and transmit diseases like malaria and West Nile virus. Their work is made possible by NMNH's collection of 1.5 million mosquitoes—the world's largest. Over the years, the reasons that Smithsonian scientists collected mosquitoes have changed, and so has the nature of the research that their collection supported. But the scientific worth of the collections—the importance of having well-preserved specimens of as many unique species as possible—has only increased. The Smithsonian's collection of mosquitoes began in the late 1800s, thanks to scientists at the Department of Agriculture who gathered adults and larvae in the field. That early research focused not so much on the diseases that some species carry but on taxonomy, the labor-intensive and often unheralded work of describing and classifying newly discovered organisms.

In the early 1960s, civilian and military scientists became more interested in mosquito-borne diseases, principally because of the country's escalating involvement in Vietnam. Today scientists still collect mosquito specimens in the field, but they also raise them in laboratories, making sure that for each species collected they have examples of all of its developmental stages from larva to pupa to adult. That painstaking thoroughness has proved especially useful to researchers working to understand the complex story of how West Nile virus is transmitted from birds to mosquitoes to human beings.

No less than its collection of mosquitoes, the Institution's collection of election ephemera reveals a complex story as well. The National Museum of American History (NMAH) owns more than 90,000 election-related items, from badges and ribbons to the hand-lettered signs, sometimes homemade and sometimes made to look homemade, that delegates and attendees raise in support of their favorite candidate. The collection boasts artifacts from the most recent election as well as commemorative buttons issued to celebrate George Washington's inauguration, one of which reads: "Long live the president." Unlike more contemporary buttons, to be pinned to lapels, shirt pockets or book bags, these Washington buttons have shanks on their backs, so that they might have been sewn onto a coat and used as real buttons.

By studying a diverse array of campaign buttons and the like, historians grasp trends and patterns, understanding how political expression has evolved, as well as how it has remained surprisingly consistent. In 1840, for example, William Henry Harrison's campaign portrayed the well-born candidate as a man of humble origins, associating his name with the image of a log cabin. Later politicians followed Harrison's lead, in both their campaign material and their rhetoric. Today, log cabins appear throughout the Smithsonian's collection, on everything from hairbrushes to decorative ribbons for special occasions. One of the great joys of building up such incomparable collections is the knowledge that long after the items have been acquired and cataloged, scholars and Smithsonian visitors alike will find meaning in them anew.

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