WASHINGTON _ The poison-tipped blow-gun darts are kept in a metal drawer on the first floor. But if you’re looking for the 8-foot blow guns – they’re upstairs.
These relics from South America are just a few of the hundreds of thousands of items that are not on display in the Smithsonian Museums. Instead, they are tucked away in the Smithsonian Institution Museum Support Center, just two miles east of Washington D.C., in Suitland, Md.
Each item, no matter how exotic, is carefully tagged, numbered and neatly filed away. And the sheer number and variety is mind-boggling.
“I haven’t even seen everything yet,” said John Bartell, the center’s manager, “and I work here every day.”
And every day, the Smithsonian gets more – hundreds of donations from around the globe. Less than one percent of what the Smithsonian owns is displayed for the public. Since 1984, the Museum of Natural History has been using the 500,000-plus square-foot support center as its warehouse. The center also allows researchers to study the sundry of cultural pieces and animal remains.
“The stuff that comes in here is usually stuff that is not going to go on exhibit any time soon,” Bartell said. “They’re more for study than for show.”
Everything is meticulously stored in four warehouse-like pods as big as football fields. Pod 1 houses artifacts from cultures across the planet. The three-floored rectangle smells of formaldehyde. And the bare concrete floors and dull-gray metal lockers give the feel of a high school hallway. Inside the lockers are thin metal drawers, each with its own piece of history.
Dave Rosenthal, Smithsonian Museum specialist, points to a 100-year-old whale-gutskin parka from Alaska. “We have to be innovative to preserve things like these,” he said.
The second pod is an animal graveyard, used by zoologists. The aisles of shelves resemble a department store of animal remains: A 15-foot alligator recently taken off display. The tusks from the elephant in the Museum of Natural History Rotunda. And antlers – lots of antlers.
At the end of the second aisle of antlers lays the racks and skulls of two large bucks who got locked together during rutting season.
“Once they’re like that, we can’t get them apart,” Bartell said, shrugging his shoulders. “I guess you can call it a draw.”
Next door in Pod 3 – A.K.A. the “wet pod” – is a collection of species preserved in glass jelly jars. But don’t be mistaken.
“This ain’t your mother’s chicken soup,” Bartell said.
The collection of squids, fish and other smaller organisms is kept in a concoction of 70 percent alcohol and 30 percent water. Larger species of sharks and alligators are kept in the same fluid, but in thick plastic tanks.
A fourth pod opens this fall. It will be a parking lot for the larger items in the Smithsonian collection – meteorites, totem poles and even a head from Easter Island. The expansive block looks like a lumber yard with its giant yellow and blue shelves.
About 15 experts a month come to prowl the support center’s collection, hunting for insights into their specialties. A retired scientist uses the preserved bodies of termites for his research on how their stomach enzymes break down wood. An Oxford scholar studying braiding techniques wanted to see the braids on Samurai armor. And a craftsman poked around to look at spoon patterns from different cultures.
“I’ve been waiting to get a call from some tattoo artist,” Rosenthal said, “because there are some really good designs in here.” One-of-a-kind designs abound on American Indian teepees, pottery from across the globe and rugs of the Orient.
Only once a year – usually in the spring – the public can explore the center. It doesn’t lend out its goodies. But Rosenthal calls it the “library of the natural world.” “Like a library,” he said, “not every book is used everyday, but it’s all there if you need it.”