Washington museums’ hidden treasures

The rich treasures on D.C. museum walls represent a fraction of the holdings of those institutions. Because only about 5 percent or less of a museum’s collection is ever out on display, hundreds of thousands of rare, valuable and unique items sit patiently in storage.

Though they are often available for research purposes, some pieces have not been seen in public exhibits in decades. Others have never been put on display at all.

Without photos, a museum visit isn’t as tangible

Without photos, a museum visit isn’t as tangible

Museum-goers prowl exhibits looking for works to capture in a snapshot — and in their memories.

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We asked some local museums what they might have in storage that won’t be on exhibit any time soon for whatever reason — fragility, unsuitability with the collection, or sheer size.

Since the federal government shutdown Oct. 1, of course, all of the items in the 17 Smithsonian museums in D.C., as well as the National Gallery of Art and the Holocaust Museum, are essentially closed to the public and “in storage.” But even when government operations resume, these items will be still out of view:

“Self-Portrait”

Rembrandt van RijnNational Gallery of Art

Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn executed dozens of self-portraits over the years, but one from 1637, sits in storage at the National Gallery of Art.

“We have to regulate the amount of light exposure they get,” says associate curator Gregory Jecmen. “Cumulatively, it can fade a work after time. So we bring them into storage.”

When it was last seen in 2006 as part of a big Rembrandt show, it was the first time it had been in public view at the National Gallery since 1978, though it was lent to museums in London and The Hague in 1999.

“It’s a very beautiful and very moving self-portrait in red chalk,” Jecmen says of the work, deemed his most important self-portrait drawings. “And Rembrandt did very few red chalk drawings in his life. Mostly he worked in pen-and-ink and ash.”

And while a lot of his drawn self-portraits are “little sketches, this is fully realized with great shadows and light and dark,” he says.

More than 1,000 scholars and researchers made appointments to see works there last year, Jecmen says.

Seeing the work in person, “they get the whole vibrancy and intimacy of the works of art,” Jecmen says. “The texture and feel of the line doesn’t come across in a photograph.”

He says there are no current plans for public exhibition of the self-portrait, which measures about 4-by-5 inches.

“Girl Fishing at San Vigilio”

John Singer SargentCorcoran Gallery of Art

Safely in storage at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, John Singer Sargent’s 1913 “Girl Fishing at San Vigilio” is one of two major paintings on loan from the estate of copper heiress Huguette Clark, recently in the news for the settlement of her $300 million estate.

In the settlement, the cash-strapped Corcoran will receive $10 million in cash and half of any amount exceeding $25 million for the sale of Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies.”

But it won’t be showing the Monet, which hasn’t been seen in public since it was sold in 1930. And the museum will lose the Sargent as well as a 1887 Renoir painting that had also been loaned by the estate.

While Renoir’s “Jeunes Filles Jouant au Volant” coincidentally went back on view at the Corcoran the same week the settlement news broke, the Sargent may not be seen again in Washington before it is sold.

“I’d very much like to hang it again,” said Sarah Cash, the Bechhoefer Curator of American Art at the Corcoran. But, she said, “I don’t know when it’s destined to go to market.”

The museum has benefited from the largess of the Clark family as the late heiress’s father, copper baron and Sen. William Clark of Montana, whose art collection went to the Corcoran in 1926 and his funds built the Clark wing.

Letter From Auschwitz Concentration Camp

Franciszek TargoszU.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

In one of the darkest corners of the 20th century, Auschwitz, prisoners were occasionally allowed to write home. On a standardized form whose first page was filled with stern instructions, a Polish Catholic political prisoner, Franciszek Targosz, painted a bouquet of flowers.

The burst of color and optimism out of such a brutal place made it a favorite item for Suzy Snyder, curator at the Holocaust Museum.

“I’ve pulled it many time to look at it,” she says. “I love this artifact.”

But because of its fragility, it has never been on display to the public in its 23 years there, and is not likely to ever be.

Targosz, taken by Germans to Auschwitz in December 1940 for his resistance efforts, was interrogated and likely tortured in its notorious block 11. Transferred to Mauthausen camp in Austria in early 1945 as Russian troops advance on Poland, Targosz was liberated.

The letter is from the donated collection of Jan Komski, another Polish artist who survived Auschwitz and four other concentration camps and moved eventually to Washington, where he worked as a graphic artist for years at The Post.

Komski’s donation is part of the millions of pages of documents used for research that are never part of the museum’s display.

Boston Marathon artifacts

Michael RezendesNewseum

If today’s news is tomorrow’s history, then its artifacts ought to be preserved for future study. Such is the case at the Newseum, where many of the events reflected in its preserved newsprint are also represented by totems of the past, from the Unabomber’s cabin to a section of the Berlin Wall.

But some news is so recent, there hasn’t been timeto put artifacts on display.

After the Boston Marathon bombing in April, “one of the interesting aspectsfor us were the reporters who had run the marathon and, after the bombing, instantaneously turned on a dime and put their reporting hats on,” says Newseum curator and director of collections Carrie Christoffersen.

“We looked in articles to find out who they were, and reached out to them directly.”

Among those who responded was the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and political writer Michael Rezendes, who donated the worn running shoes he used in the event, his race bib with its chip and the notes he jotted on the back of a running club flier at the scene.

There are no current plans to put the Boston Marathon artifacts on display. “We’ll see where they fit into our stories here. We may look at different elements – the running toward danger aspect, how the news media covers crime, spots where we can figure how to fit it in. We don’t have a firm plan for them now,” Christoffersen says.

“As Time Goes By”

Howard HodgkinThe Phillips Collection

At the Phillips Collection, one fairly recent acquisitionis likely to stay in storage until wall space is freed up for its return. But storage itself was a concern when the museum received Howard Hodgkin’s “As Time Goes By” – 10-panelhand-painted etching.

Phillips Collection Head of Conservation Elizabeth Steele says it took a team to devise a way first to install the panels for its 2011 “90 Years of New” exhibition. “It was quite a puzzle,” she said.

After its run from January to May that year, they also had to figure out a way to store them, finally arriving on an innovative customized vertical rack that fit in an unused corner of storage area.

Steele said the Hodgkin work is bigger than even the biggest sculptures in the Phillips vault and requires special care. Their process, chronicled on a YouTube video, resulted in a storage spot measuring 2 by 5 by 10 feet.

The sheer size of Hodgkin’s piece means much time may go by before the public again sees “As Time Goes By.”

Jarvik-7 artificial heart

National Museum of American History

As the first artificial heart implanted as a bridge until a human heart could be transplanted, this Jarvik-7 heart beat for nine days in the chest of 25-year-old Michael Drummond in 1985 and sat on display in the Smithsonian for a decade.

Drummond himself donated it to the museum, saying, “ I’m just happy that I could give something that kept me alive for other people to see.”

And though it wasn’t the first artificial heart used, it remained a popular exhibit, according to Judy Chelnick, curator in the division of science and medicine at the National Museum of American History.

“People are fascinated by them,” Chelnick says. “There was so much publicity about them, people will see one and ask if it’s a Jarvik-7. They know the name.”

The Smithsonian has a handful of early artificial hearts — “an embarrassment of riches.” But this one hasn’t been on display for a while.

Drummond, a former assistant manager of a grocery store in Arizona, was the youngest person to get an artificial heart at the time. It was installed as a last-chance effort to keep him alive until a human heart became available. One did, nine days later, and Drummond went on to live another five years.

Medical instruments make up one of the largest and oldest parts of the Smithsonian collection, Chelnick says. With the modern boom in artificial organs and limbs, there has also been an equal rise in their acquisition.

One of the most popular exhibits in the Museum of American History, she says, is a plastic skeleton named Yorick, affixed with all manner of artificial organs and parts — including a Jarvik-7.

Anchor Stone Building Box

F.A.D. Richter & Co.National Building Museum

Any family trip to the National Building Museum ends up in the big room dedicated to Lego blocks in the long-term exhibit “Play Work Build.”

But behind the scenes, the museum is cataloguing more than 2,000 building toys that have yet go on display.

Among them is German-made Anchor Stone Building Box, circa 1880, from F.A.D. Richter & Co. These were stones of different shapes children used to build miniature churches and structures.

At about an inch square each, they’re not as big as the usual building blocks. But, according to National Building Museum Curator Sarah Leavitt, “they have a weight to them.”

While the stones in the package have held up, “the wooden boxes with paper are not in good enough shape to display,” she says.

They’re from the collection of George Wetzel, a retired schoolteacher from Peotone, Ill., who donated 2,300 different architectural toys several years ago that are still being catalogued, Leavitt says.

The collection also includes improvements on the Anchor Stone concept made in 1919 by A.C. Gilbert, the New Haven manufacturer who came up with the Erector Set in 1913.

Marie Curie’s radium

National Museum of American History

One of the historic artifacts in the Smithsonian’s science and medicine division of the National Museum of American History can never be seen for a simple reason: It’s radioactive.

A tiny vial of Madame Curie’s radium that she gave to a U.S. pioneer in radiology, New York surgeon Robert Abbe, in 1903, is in a locked, lead-lined box in storage, along with material Abbe used in his early radium treatments for cancer.

Curie and her husband had discovered the substance and its medical uses in 1898 but never bothered to patent it. So as prices for radium at the time were skyrocketing for the very medical uses she helped devise, a group of women raised $100,000 to pay for the tiny vial, allowing her to have some to keep.

The New York Academy of Medicine held Abbe’s vial from Curie for years, but, according to Diane Wendt, associate curator in the division of medicine and science at the National Museum of History, “they no longer had a way to store it safely.”

So the historical hot potato ended up at the Smithsonian, albeit in “a special container so heavy I can’t pick it up myself,” Wendt says.

It’s one of millions of items kept in storage, for study and for future generations (and who might have a better idea on how to handle the thing).

“Oak Tree”

William Henry Fox TalbotNational Gallery of Art

Like drawings, photographs are sensitive to light and can’t be on display for more than a few months at a time. Hence, they are among the more than 120,000 prints, drawings and photographs in storage at the National Gallery of Art.

Among the extensive photography collection, there are 10 examples from British inventor and pioneer of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot, such as this picture of a stately oak tree from the mid-1840s.

Writing in his six-volume book of calotypes, “The Pencil of Nature,” Talbot wrote, “a time-withered oak or a moss-covered stone may awaken a train of thoughts and feelings, and picturesque imaginings.”

To be so awakened, viewers must reserve time at a National Gallery study room to get a peek at the oak and other works by the man credited with inventing the negative-positive process in photography.

After its acquisition and initial display in 1995, Talbot’s “Oak Tree,” measuring just under 9 by 8 inches, has been on public display just twice, in the 1997 “Building a Collection” exhibit, and 13 years ago in the 2000 “Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century.”

White Eagle’s Indian Rattle Snake Oil Liniment

National Museum of American History

Patent medicines were often pedaled in medicine shows by hawkers, sometimes known as snake oil salesmen. Today such come-ons for concoctions promising weight loss, hair restoration or bedroom prowess are broadcast on late-night TV infomercials, but the pharmaceuticals of early 19th century relied on fancy packaging, bold claims and colorful personalities.

What may be forgotten is that snake oil, rich with Omega-3 fatty acids, was considered a good thing. White Eagle’s Indian Rattle Snake Oil Liniment, sold for years by a company out of Piqua, Ohio, claimed to “cure diphtheria, hay-fever, goiter, deafness and rheumatism,” though government chemists found in 1921 that the liniment did none of those things. In fact, it contained kerosene, not rattlesnake oil, says Wendt, associate curator in the division of medicine and science at the National Museum of American History, who wrote a blog about it.

Wendt says its small-town manufacturers, Aaron P. And Caroline McCarty, were charged $25 each for false advertising and went back to business, changing the label of their product to merely The Old Indian Remedy. She also notes that the Chief White Eagle pictured on the label was actually McCarty, a man of Scotch-Irish descent.

There are up to 6,000 of what are called “patent medicines” in the collection today, which was boosted when mom-and-pop drugstores started going out of business in the early 20th century with a number of old elixirs in storage, according to Wendt.

“Medicine at any time makes for an interesting case history of marketing,” Wendt says. But the early snake oil salesmen might have been unfairly treated. “There were complete quacks out there, as there are today,” she said. “But you’ll also find a return to botanical products, which people are using again today.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Corcoran would receive half the proceeds of a Claude Monet “Water Lilies.”

Catlin is a freelance writer.

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