Passing Judgment: What Does It Mean When Smithsonian Shows 'American Idol' Desk?

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009

The announcement that the Smithsonian was accepting the "American Idol" desk into its collection was the opposite of old-fashioned pomp and ceremony.

"Last night, Ryan Seacrest was injured in a horrible bikini-waxing accident," began Ben Stiller, making a guest appearance on "American Idol" in May. In Seacrest's stead, Stiller brought important news: The nation's attic had a new treasure. Stiller, of course, was appearing on the Fox-produced "Idol" to plug his Twentieth Century Fox-produced movie, "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," and he was joined by fellow cast members who pitched in to give the whole thing a mock-heroic sense of irony.

"This mighty desk," said Hank Azaria, who plays an irascible pharaoh in the film, "will share the same roof as Abraham Lincoln's top hat."

It "will soon be displayed next to Old Glory," added Bill Hader.

"Right beside Thomas Jefferson's desk, where the words were first uttered, 'All men are created equal,' will be this desk, where the words were first uttered, 'You were pitchy, dog, you were mad pitchy in spots,' " said Jonah Hill.

None of their predictions have come to pass. The Smithsonian has acquired the "Idol" desk, and until Sept. 13 it is on display in the Smithsonian Castle, near a pile of fake museum "loot" that advertises the Smithsonian's licensing and filming agreement with the makers of "Night at the Museum." But the references to iconic historical objects from the National Museum of American History definitely implied that the desk had been acquired by that museum. It wasn't, and it won't be on display there.

Instead, the desk will be held by the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, joining what curator Daniel Sheehy calls its "modest material culture" collection, housed in various storage facilities in and around Washington. The desk won't sit near Jefferson's desk nor share a roof with Lincoln's top hat. It may share a warehouse with a truck from Pakistan and a water tower from New York City. And if it goes on display again, it will very likely be at another museum not affiliated with the Smithsonian.

"I've already been in touch with other museums in terms of its longer-term display," says Sheehy, acting director of the center. "I have some interest, but I can't say what yet."

If it seems like the desk couldn't be shuffled off to Buffalo any faster, the Smithsonian isn't acknowledging it. The American History Museum couldn't take the desk, according to a spokeswoman, because it comes with a neon sign, which would have been difficult to store. But the sign somehow disappeared from negotiations by the time the Folklife collection, which is made up mostly of recorded archives, plus some instruments and small artifacts from the annual cultural festival on the Mall, agreed to take it.

The ultimate destination of the desk within the Smithsonian isn't of much concern to the folks at News Corp., according to Michelle Marks, senior vice president for theatrical marketing at the subsidiary Twentieth Century Fox. They were looking to plug a big summer film and attach the institutional prestige of the Smithsonian to "American Idol." Marks said the folks at "Idol" were skeptical that the Smithsonian, which receives annual government support, would deign to take the desk. But they were pleasantly surprised.

"You can only imagine how excited we were," Marks says. "A government agency!"

Which isn't exactly accurate, either, but never mind. The main hall of the Smithsonian Castle is now a cluttered and not-quite-wholly-owned subsidiary of News Corp. At least for a few months. It also raises questions about the line between displaying pop culture and giving free advertising to an ongoing commercial venture. Because unlike the "Night at the Museum" deal, which may bring in $1.25 million of revenue (depending on the film's success), the "American Idol" desk came without any Fox contribution to the Smithsonian coffers.

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