Maybe it was the oil portraits painted directly on genuine, organic cobwebs, or the half of the false mustache torn from the face of a would-be mail train heister, or the chunk of stone from Joan of Arc's dungeon, or the amputated hoof of a D.C. Fire horse, or Hitler's green and white ceramic teapot, or the football-sized ball of snuff that wound up in the dead-letter office, or the national gallstone collection. . . .
Or maybe today just might be April Fool's Day, and there just might be a new director at the Museum of History and Technology who went along with this classic two-drink-lunch dream that Smithsonian curators have been having for decades: a glimpse at "The Nation's Attic."
This is the stuff that mother's nightmares are made of, the objects discovered along the shoulders of life's curving pot holed road that have absolutely no use but are somehow too appealing to toss out.
And where do they go?
You got it. The attic.
Now you have to consider that the Smithsonian's attic is a bit larger than your basic Rockville crawl space. How about 3 million items gathering dust at History and Technology alone?
Forget about the piece of the True Cross, a large collection of radiator air valves and a complete set of Army VD posters that never made it downstairs. How about a plug of tobacco carried by Commander Peary to the North Pole, or a century-old wind machine, or a red-white-and-blue-dyed beard grown by Californian Gary Sandburg in 1976 to commemorate the Bicentennial, or the black dentures made in the United States for export to Polynesia where black teth were considered beautiful in the 19th century?
"Sensing the market," quips Bob Vogel, one of the show's curators.
"What made America great," adds project manager Ben Lawless. "Black false teeth and the atomic bomb."
Speaking of plumbing and death, don't rush past the national pipe wrench collection (counts are one item) or the creme de la creme of water meters, 1,000 strong, offered to the Smithsonian in 1965 by A. A. Hirsh of Shreverport, La. (also counts as one item in this 100 item show).
Moving right along, there are trimmings from Lincoln's hearse, coffin-shaped poison pills, a swiss army knife shaped like a dog, a pair of size 18 shoes made for a seven-foot-plus Union soldier who lasted about 39 seconds on the battlefield, a nearly complete collection of locks of hair from the dead presidents, Casey Jones' grave marker and the actual floor on which President Garfield collapsed when he was assassinated, and a cement casting of an old auto from a demolished parking garage.
"All this crap has a purpose," says Lawless, glancing around his show, neatly housed in a room that looks like an attic -- down to the rubber cement cobwebs spun by a theatrical-effects machines.
"Every museum has a problem finding the big stuff of big people, so you have to go after associational things. If a body is worth 100 points, false teeth are 98, underpants are 85, right on down to a footstool he once used. Sometimes you get a bequest and it has some stranger but fascinating objects in it. The Chicago Historical Society has the wolf from Mary's little lamb.
"We've been wanting to do a show like this for years -- but it wasn't until we got a new director here that we got the go-ahead. Some people always worried that it would make the museum look silly."
Who's to say what's more important: the Hope Diamond downstairs, or the Attic's wekk-preserved brown paper package, $145.29 in postage and insurance affixed, used to mail the object from New York to Washington. The Air and Space Museum's space capsules, or the Attic's toothbrush, shared by Jim Lovell and Frank Borman while flying around the moon.
You have till Sept. 15 to decide.