Among other marvels, the Smithsonian's new $50 million museum support center in Suitland, Md., has a 7,000-gallon tank for boiling trapped grease and fat out of whale skulls after they have been picked clean by colonies of beetles kept on hand for such work.
Boiling the skulls means they will last longer and studying them will be more pleasant. Previously, big skulls and bones were simply scrubbed.
"If it doesn't work out well, we can always use it as an executive sauna," said Donald Duckworth, who led a press tour yesterday of the 4 1/2-acre, two-story building he has been planning and working on for the Smithsonian for five years.
The beetles will remain in the Museum of Natural History on the Mall where they live in a metal-lined room. "You let them out and they'll eat your shoes," said spokeswoman Mary Combs.
The new center will be dedicated by Smithsonian chief S. Dillon Ripley in a ceremony next Monday.
Soon workers will begin moving millions of the Smithsonian's 100 million objects--birds' nests and totem poles as well as whale skulls--from overstuffed storage rooms in museums on the Mall into the new center, where they will be stored in four huge "pods."
The move will take three years and cost millions.
Each of the pods, called "giant thermos bottles" by center Director Vince Wilcox, is roughly the size of a football field with walls 22 inches thick, air conditioned to 70 degrees and humidified to 50 percent by 14 cooling units weighing 25 tons each.
The objects will be treated and studied in 55 laboratories in which the plumbing pipes are made of special glass, resistant to acid and other corrosives. Approximately 300 of the Smithsonian's 4,500 personnel will work there.
No detail has been overlooked, no expense spared. There are emergency showers and eyewash fountains in halls and labs, a big fumigation chamber room to kill any unauthorized insect before it squirms or wiggles onto the premises, big X-ray rooms completely encased in lead.
There's even a walk-in refrigeration room for the trash from the employe cafeteria so it won't stink up the place and attract the wrong element from the bug world.
Workers will be allowed into their own work areas only, and only by use of computerized access cards. The whole place is surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire. The objects stored are "absolutely priceless," Duckworth said.
Duckworth said the center--probably the largest and most advanced of its type in the world--will "preserve in perpetuity . . . the national patronage."
The patronage to be stored there includes insects, whale and elephant skulls and bones, Indian baskets, clothing, preserved turtles, fossils, totem poles, algae and marine life bottled in alcohol, suits of armor, and so on.
And 10,000 Zun i Indian pots. Included among those interested in seeing that many pots, according to Duckworth, are "scholars and Zun is."
Redundancy--the vastness of its collections--is what makes the Smithsonian one of the world's great scholarly museums. Most of these objects will never go on public display, but scholars from all over the world will study them.
You learn a lot more about Zun i culture by studying thousands of pots than just a few good ones, Duckworth said. He said that one of the things that cinched the case against the dangerous insecticide DDT was a study of the Smithsonian's vast collection of birds' eggs, the shells of which could be shown to have become thinner in the years in which the eggs were exposed to wide DDT use.
The new space will allow stored objects to be "decompressed," officials said. For example, Indian baskets now piled inside one another in storage areas on the Mall will each have their own place side-by-side on shelves "so that they will not lose their shape or break their fibers," according to a press release.
At $32 a cubic foot, the cost of decompressing can add up fast. The building itself cost $29 million, $26.5 million of it taxpayer money and $2.5 million generated by the private Smithsonian endowment. Smithsonian officials expect another $21 million in taxpayer money to be forthcoming for storage and laboratory equipment, according to spokesman Alvin Rosenfeld.
Duckworth said the huge pods are "explosion-proof" with no-spark lights and switches because at least one of them will house much of the Museum of Natural History's "wet collection"--specimens preserved in alcohol-filled jars.
He pointed out big floor drains in various labs where 55-gallon drums of alcohol will be handled and unpacked. These also have no-spark fixtures, and one has what Duckworth called a "blow-out window," which would easily blow out to relieve pressure "if the worst should happen for some reason."