The Smithsonian Institution owns 137 million things. Over the past 15 years, Frohlich, it seems, has scanned them all.
Okay, not quite. But if he had enough time, he would.
“This is my hobby,” Frohlich says of his job.
In 1996, Siemens Corp. donated a used medical CT scanner to the National Museum of Natural History. Understanding the machine’s potential to reveal ancient secrets, Frohlich took charge of it.
“In the old days, 20 years ago, we would do an autopsy, cut the body open,” Frohlich says of studying mummies. No need for such destructive science now. Just scan an object, and a three-dimensional image of its innards appears.
Frohlich said few other museums own full-size CT machines. And now the Smithsonian owns two. A faster, higher-resolution scanner arrived in September, again a used model (again donated by Siemens) that retails for about $250,000. It’s a gleaming white five-foot-tall vertical doughnut with a sliding table attached, squeezed into Frohlich’s third-floor laboratory.
In a hospital, the scanner’s penetrating X-rays might spot a tumor. At the museum, they reveal that what appears to be a small mummy of a sacred kitten is, in fact, hollow — a 2,500-year-old Egyptian con job.
“You never know what you’ll find,” says the 60-something Danish native, perhaps a little impishly.
A small rectangular box hangs above the lab door. It reads “X-RAYS” and flashes red when the scanner is on. People walk in anyway, interrupting. This annoys Frohlich. There’s so much to scan.
Frohlich enjoys the solitude of it. “I’m not a give-me-attention kind of guy,” he says as he briskly leads a visitor past a mob of tourists in the museum’s entrance hall. “I’m more of a leave-me-alone type.”
Sometimes this happens: A colleague wheels up to the lab a behemoth chunk of dinosaur skeleton. It is mineralized bone — a fossil — so it is hard. X-rays scatter off such items, bouncing all over the joint and possibly exposing the unwary to tiny doses of radiation. So when confronted with hard targets, Frohlich waits until everyone in the vast museum has left.
In the 2 a.m. quiet, he scans.
“My workdays keep going; they are 24 hours,” he says. “I love it.”
Scanmaster of the Smithsonian is Frohlich’s second job at the museum. He arrived in 1978 as a forensic anthropologist, a career that still carries him around the world. In the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and the deserts of Mongolia, he helps solve ancient murder mysteries. When he’s not traveling, he spends half his time in Vermont, where he aids the state police there and in Connecticut in solving more-recent homicides.