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An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed the country of origin for a printing press on display at the Newseum. This version has been corrected.

The wonders around us

We live in a region with hundreds of museums. Hundreds. Art. Firearms. Medicine. Espionage. History. Religion. Foreign cultures. Rockets. Many of the most valuable artifacts in the world are here. We asked 10 writers to visit a museum, then tell us what captivated them most.

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Sunday, October 3, 2010

We live in a region with hundreds of museums. Art. Firearms. Medicine. Espionage. History. Religion. Foreign cultures. Rocket science. Many of the most valuable artifacts in the world are here. We asked 10 people to go in search of one object that captivated them.

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The extinct instrument

If the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History is "the nation's attic," then its tucked-away Hall of Musical Instruments is a lost corner of the attic.

The museum's 5,000 instruments -- 99 percent are in storage -- don't have quite the impact of Jefferson's lap desk. Many aren't even American. But for connoisseurs of the obscure, their gallery is a necessary stop.

Some might head to the Stradivarius strings, probably worth more than almost anything in the museum. But I prefer one of their more freakish relations, called a baryton: a cello's second cousin twice removed, you might say, with a weight problem and a strange fashion sense.

The baryton has bowed gut strings, strung over a neck fretted like a guitar's (Audio: Hear the baryton played). Behind those it has a second set of metal strings tuned to single notes, meant to vibrate in sympathy as the front strings are played. They give the instrument a warm, thrumming sound. Players can also pluck those sympathetic strings with their left thumbs to add a charming note of pizzicato. The instrument went extinct in the late 1700s but has been brought back to life in copies, such as the 1986 baryton by Baltimore luthier George Cassis, on indefinite loan.

The baryton's brief and shining moment came around 1770, at the Eszterhazy court in what is now Hungary. Prince Nikolaus Eszterhazy, patron of Joseph Haydn, played the instrument and got Haydn to compose almost 200 pieces for it. The story goes that Haydn thought he'd surprise his employer by learning to play the baryton himself. Nikolaus was not pleased at being one-upped.

-- Blake Gopnik, art critic

The slave's letter

Over 40 years, Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, a Los Angeles couple, have acquired every kind of artifact related to the African American experience. In their collection are rare documents, such as a letter from a Union soldier recounting the 1862 murder of slaves in Tennessee and a parade flag of the Buffalo Soldiers. This important and fragile bounty is moving into the National Museum of American History on Oct. 15 in a series of galleries that are a showcase for the planned National Museum of African American History and Culture, to open in 2015.

One letter, written by slaveholder A.M.F. Crawford in 1854, introduces his slave Frances. The letter is stained, but the messages are clear. She is described as "the finest chamber maid I have ever seen in my life, she is a good washer, but at house cleaning she has perfect slight [sic] of hand." The 17-year-old Frances does not know her fate, but the viewer will probably cry at the clear and attractive handwriting that says "she does not know that she is to be sold." And Crawford boldly lets the potential buyer know he is using the proceeds for a new stable.

-- Jacqueline Trescott, cultural reporter

The tree that goes gray

Of all the evergreens that grow in Washington, none is more beautiful, or less well known, than the lacebark pine.

This conifer grows slowly and inconspicuously at first. After a decade or so, its silver bark begins to take on a mottled appearance. After 20 years, the trunk (or trunks) expresses itself as a mosaic that grows more striking with the passing years. The exfoliating scales of the bark form a patchwork in light and dark green, tan, silver and pink. The effect is breathtaking, particularly in the spareness of winter.


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