As the Smithsonian Institution celebrates its 175th birthday this year, the sprawling museum-and-zoo complex counts just over 155 million items in its 20 museums and off-site storage facilities. Across more than 11 million square feet of exhibition and storage space—most of it located in Washington, D.C., suburban Maryland, and New York City—those artifacts range from slingshots to space shuttles, ants to elephants.
It’s no surprise that only about one percent of the collection is on display at any given time. But that raises a question: What are we missing? As I discover when three Smithsonian museums kindly allow me to peek inside their back rooms, the answer is: lots of things that will absolutely blow your mind.
In the maze of storage rooms at the National Museum of American History, for instance, it seems every cabinet I look into holds an iconic cultural touchstone. Behind one door lies Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow costume from The Wizard of Oz. A nearby drawer holds, side by side, Jerry Seinfeld’s puffy shirt and Mister Rogers’ red sweater. A small box contains the original stopwatch from the television news program 60 Minutes.
This treasure trove of popular culture may not be exactly what James Smithson, a British scientist who never visited the United States, had in mind in 1829 when he left about $500,000 for the creation of “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” But there’s no denying that the institution that bears his name has come to be synonymous with boundless curiosity, relentless discovery—and, it appears, endless accumulation of stuff.
But don’t for one second confuse the Smithsonian with your grandmother’s attic. Meticulously organized and surprisingly selective, the museum’s archives are an essential resource in its mission to explore and preserve the natural and cultural wonders of America and the world.
A vast assortment of Americana
When I ask Ryan Lintelman to open a tall, double-doored cabinet in the fifth-floor storage area at the American history museum, I don’t expect to find two of my oldest friends in there.
“Yes, that’s Mr. Moose and Bunny Rabbit,” says Lintelman, the museum’s curator of entertainment. For a moment, I’m speechless. In my childhood days, I spent virtually every morning with these two guys, Captain Kangaroo’s perpetual puppet foils. Bunny Rabbit still looks ready to steal a bunch of the Captain’s carrots any second now. But Mr. Moose, always the talkative type, has a thin white cloth tying his mouth shut.
“No, Mr. Moose doesn’t have a toothache,” says Hanna Bredenbeck Corp, collections manager for music, sports, and entertainment. “It’s just that without the tie his mouth hangs open, and that’s not good for him.”
I’m so enraptured by the flesh-and-blood—or fleece-and-cloth—presence of the pair that I almost don’t notice their companions on the cabinet shelf: the Muppets’ Swedish Chef, complete with apron and whiskers, and none other than Charlie McCarthy, the granddaddy of modern puppetry. In the late 1930s, this dapperly dressed hunk of wood was the single most popular performer on radio. He even won an Oscar.
Pulling open the top drawer of a case labeled “sports balls,” Lintelman points out a baseball signed by Babe Ruth. “A lot of these came from Ella Fitzgerald,” he says. “She was a big baseball fan.”
In another room we come upon an old library file cabinet. I assume it’s an obsolete office fixture, until I notice a drawer that reads: “Phyllis Diller.”
“Yeah, that’s Phyllis Diller’s joke catalog,” says Lintelman. “She was showing us things she wanted to give us at her home, and we were actually about to leave when we noticed this. She said, ‘Well, you wouldn’t want that, would you?’ Uh, yeah. Of course, we don’t take everything that people offer us. We’d never be able to store it all.”
I nod in agreement—and then I notice, in another glass cabinet, an exhaustive collection of lunch box thermos bottles: Dick Tracy. Kiss. Fireball XL-5. From this perspective, it’s hard to believe Smithsonian curators turn down anything. And yet they do. Every day generous offers of things like vintage yearbooks, classic toys, even back issues of National Geographic are turned away with polite letters of refusal.
Now we’re walking along rows of cabinets…