Once I was meeting a Smithsonian scientist, a world authority in his field, and to reach his office I was led through a maze of packing crates, file cabinets and dusty shelves stacked with an incredible variety of exhibits. When I met the scientist I naturally greeted him with some friendly comment about "the Nation's Attic."
Well, he blew up.
"Diggity zag blammit!" he roared, or words to that effect. "If I hear one more word! About the Nation's Attic! I'll -- I'll . . . !"
After about 20 minutes he calmed down enough to talk . . .
I thought you would like to know that in 1985 the Smithsonian's eight museums collected 648,000 items.
They included a complete set of the Farmer's Almanac for 194 years, a Huey helicopter, 5,000 pieces of amber containing the tiny bodies of 24-million-year-old insects, a Confederate penny, a 1931 Parcel Post truck, a ceramic portrait of Elvis Presley, a hot-pink sapphire, Jake Garn's spacesuit, a "wanted" poster for John Wilkes Booth, a 1935 Girl Scout uniform, a nude portrait of Alice Neel at age 80, a rhinoceros and two Pacific islands.
"What curators look for in acquisition varies from one museum to another," a Smithsonian announcement announces. "In general, museum officials seek objects that are authentic, appropriate to the collection, of historic or scientific importance, well documented and, in the case of art works, beautiful or significant."
Most of these things have been squirreled away in the study collections, and only a few became part of the year's 100 new Smithsonian exhibitions -- seen, incidentally, by some 24 million visitors.
It is just as well that not every new arrival has to be displayed. The Museum of Natural History has logged in 100,000 butterflies. Not to mention 70,000 moths from Texas, several thousand squid, seven meteorites and two petrified logs, each weighing over two tons.
Down at American History they are gloating over a pen donated by a student of Austin Palmer, who invented the Palmer Method of penmanship. Also in the house are Richard Petty's good-luck stock car in which he won his 200th major race, videotapes of 100 TV commercials and a pioneer Xerox machine.
And the art museums have taken in all sorts of creations, from soft sculpture by Claes Oldenburg to 459 paintings of American Indians by George Catlin and 1,500 African textiles and looms.
I am getting low on facts, and normally at this point I would make another smart remark.
All I am asking is that sometime they send me a list of the stuff they turned down.