A beauty contest was held at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History - formerly a place where the lowest rock was judged by its intellectual contribution alone -- and the results can be seen on the first-floor gallery just inside the Constitution Avenue entrance.

The museum's scientists often work with pretty things but try not to notice. For this exhibit, a permanent one opening to the public Saturday, director Porter M. Kier told all departments to look through their old drawers for whatever was merely ravishing. Hardly any of the objects have ever been on display, and the monetary value of most is trivial. They were kept as specimens of shells, rocks, feathers, beetles, butterflies, and many of the most startlingly beautiful are not particulary significant specimens.

A wedding cake clamshell, with layers of delicate icing-pink fringe; butterflies in eerie patterns; emerald beetles, a Japanese carrier shell that makes its own still life by attaching to itself a border of smaller shells - there's going to be a steady chorus of murmured "ooooos" as people see them.

But it leads one to unsettling conclusions. Those wildly imaginative yet esthetically rhythmic and satisfying patterns and shapes - why don't human designers come up with anything of that quality?

And a related thought: How much consumerism, a.k.a. greed, there is when one is exposed to beauty, even when there's no chance of a salesperson's pulling it out of its glass case and handing it over, for a price. The rosy maple moth from Maryland - what a silk dress that pattern would make! The foot-and a half slab of fossils including pen-like worm-shells - what an executive desk ornament. The "gardens" of minerals - what centerpieces for dinner tables. The pairs of delicately traced snail shells - what earrings. The bright purple flat shells or the pink, heart-shaped cockles - what stunning compacts.

Gimme, gimme, gimme. It is a sentiment Beauty knows all about.