The Smithsonian plunges into new territory with the first Mall exhibit dealing with AIDS, one of the displays at its new Experimental Gallery opening Friday at the Arts and Industries Building.

Smithsonian officials say the idea is to test different ways of presenting exhibits. Forget about content, says gallery Director Kimberly Camp. This is about form. The AIDS exhibit, a series of 20 life masks and recorded messages from people who are HIV positive, fits the bill.

"We celebrate project Face to Face for its creative solution to the issue of accessibility," she wrote in materials accompanying the display. "The exhibit is easily mounted in many types of spaces, from small informal settings to museums. It uses tape recorders simply and honestly to tell a story about mortality and AIDS."

But content is hard to ignore, and many of the shows planned for the new gallery seem certain to stretch the Smithsonian's boundaries. One of the masks in "Project Face to Face," for example, belongs to a hooker and junkie. Some of the language, according to one of the exhibit's creators, would not pass muster with the Federal Communications Commission. "Some of these stories are not pretty," Camp says.

If "Face to Face" doesn't rile any senators from North Carolina, perhaps the still-unscheduled "Etiquette of the Undercaste" will. A work from Antennae Theatre of Sausalito, Calif., the show is intended to foster understanding of how people become homeless. Visitors will be required to slide into the exhibit space lying on a mortuary slab, Camp says.

The idea is that "you are born again as a person with limited choice as to where you will work, who you will be, how you will survive," Camp says. She adds (and who could argue?) that the unusual presentation will challenge traditional ideas about exhibition technique. "It uses mechanisms to convey the central concept of what homelessness is all about," she explains.

The idea of creating the experimental gallery came from Tom Freudenheim, the institution's assistant secretary for museums. He isn't sure how the institution will react if current or future shows stir political opposition. "We're hopeful that people will see this for what it's meant to be," he says.

Smithsonian Secretary Robert McC. Adams says the institution should take on controversial issues. "Obviously, we might keep an eye over our shoulder for decent respect for the issues of mankind, or whatever that phrase was ... but to stick our head in the sand and ignore issues of controversy would be to deny an important role that the Smithsonian could play."

Camp says no one is telling her what to do, but she acknowledges that no one has promised that won't happen. "It'll have to be the institution's decision, how they address issues of content and subject matter," she says. "I have no guarantees whatsoever... . I asked those questions. I said, 'Tell me where the hot potatoes are.' I was told there ain't none."

It's high time, she adds, that the Smithsonian's voice was heard on some topical issues. The institution was quiet, she says, during recent fights over freedom of expression -- over public funding of controversial art and flag burning.

"We're the nation's museum," she observes. "Shouldn't we say something?"

Smithsonian officials stress that the gallery is not about content, not about politics, not about cultural diversity. "God knows, this is not a place where we experiment on people of color," Camp says.

But one of the first shows is "Casitas," an exhibition about traditional houses and gardens created as informal Puerto Rican community centers in New York. Other themes mentioned on a list of upcoming exhibits are the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration, white stereotypes of blacks, African American sacred music and African oral traditions.

Visitors can expect to find a cultural mix because "we feel the most innovative work has been happening in multicultural exhibits and interactive ... science exhibits," Camp explains. But the point of the gallery is to learn about different styles of presentation, and the institution will use various approaches to measuring visitor response.

Science makes its bow in "Principles of Flight," being tested in the gallery by the National Air and Space Museum in an effort to get children (and probably plenty of adults) to understand how planes fly. In the list of upcoming shows, science is the focus in exhibits on navigation, psychology and animals.

Some of the shows may present a point of view, Camp says, but that is more common than most people suppose when they step into museums. "Do museums actually manipulate people like that?" she says. "Yeah, they do. Do they talk about it? No, they don't."

Most people, Camp says, hold museums too much in awe. "I hate museums ..." she says. "I don't like old dead stuff. I think we have enough of it."

And that includes the Smithsonian. "People who come to the Smithsonian expect to find truth writ supreme," she says. "They tend not to know that people who do exhibits are bright or stupid, are old and antiquated or too fresh for their own good." Her lack of reverence doesn't always stand her in good stead with Smithsonian colleagues, she acknowledges. "People hate me around here," she says happily.

If people hate many of the exhibits, that's fine with her, Camp says. "We hope to have no more than a 50 percent success rate because if it's higher than that, then we ain't experimenting," she explains.

Shows at the gallery are not mounted with public funds. Would-be exhibitors submit applications, which are evaluated by Camp and a panel of advisers. The group includes representatives from various Smithsonian museums and outsiders such as Amalia Mesa-Bains of the Galeria de la Raza in San Francisco, Michael Spock of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and George Tressel of Children's Television Workshop in New York. Successful applicants get payment to do a residency during all or part of their exhibition, and the gallery covers shipping, insurance and various other expenses.

Camp, 34, is given to grandiose statements. Smithsonian staff who do exhibits in her space "will probably be heralded in the future as heroes of innovation," she declares.

She has a degree in art history and studio arts from the University of Pittsburgh and a master's in arts administration from Drexel University. She came from a job as a program director with the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. She paints and makes dolls; large, bright paintings of relatives are on her office walls. "I don't paint for museums," she says. "I don't care for them to have my stuff."