Thursday, August 25, 2011

Grazing at the Smithsonian

I seem to remember reading, or hearing, years ago that if you spent 10 seconds looking at each item the Smithsonian has in its collection, to the exclusion of doing anything else, you still couldn't see everything in a normal lifetime. Of course, that mass of holdings probably includes warehouses of specimen boxes collected during long-ago decades that no one has looked at since they were hastily cataloged -- after all, who would want a long look at 100,000 kinds of beetles?

Still, even the items on display stagger the imagination. How come there's so much stuff in the world? Do philosophies either ancient or modern deal with this important question? Well, maybe. In any case, the Smithsonian seems to have a sizable fraction of all that stuff.

That was a long-winded way of saying that despite the hours we devoted to the Smithsonian last week, I came away with the feeling that we'd only grazed on a negligible sample. The fact that we were roaming the Smithsonian halls with children added to that feeling. It's good to take your children to such places, but you can't to expect them to appreciate much of it in quite the way you do. They will weave what they see into their own selves according to their own lights. They will also pull you onward through the exhibits whether you're ready or not to quit examining those rare beetles.

"Lilly, look at this," I said. There in front of me at the National Museum of Natural History was some rai money from Yap -- the enormous stone doughnuts from that island that prove that just about anything can be a store of value. "It's stone money from Yap. Yap's a little island in the Pacific. They used to use these big stones as money."

Uh-huh, she replied. But I have to be fair about this. I'm not certain that a rai would have impressed me much in the summer of 1974. I would have gone looking for the collection of gold and silver coins. It helps to have heard about stone money occasionally over the years, to know someone who's actually been to Yap and sent you a postcard with a rai on it, and to have read about them -- including an article that told me that even though one such stone had fallen into the ocean near Yap, it still counted among the wealth of the owner, because everyone else still accepted it as a store of value (note to Ron Paul: that's how all money works, even gold).

Anyway, I'd never seen a rai before. I was impressed. Nearby was a smallish moai from Easter Island. I'd never seen one of those in person either, unless I saw the one at the British Museum and had forgotten about it. That's another thing about stuff. A lot of it gets lost in the tangled byways of memory.

The Hope Diamond is also at Natural History. Yuriko was keen to see that. Apparently it's famed among the Japanese for having passed through the hands of Marie Antoinette and maybe being cursed, though I suspect that Pierre Cartier made up the curse for marketing purposes. Whatever the truth of that, it was a lovely stone and surrounded by admirers the day we visited. We stuck around to see other gems as well, including the world's largest flawless quartz sphere (242,323 carats). Marie Antoinette could not have worn that.

Years ago I made the mistake of visiting the National Air and Space Museum on the day after Thanksgiving. The crowds were enormous and completely distracting. This time around we went on a Friday, and the crowding was significant but tolerable. Exciting things have been added in 20 years! (I told my family). Old friends are there, of course, such as the Wright Bros. plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, Friendship 7, the Apollo 11 CM Columbia, and a spare LM that never went on a one-way lunar mission.

But look! An SS-20 Soviet missile. Next to a Pershing II. Those couldn't have been there in the 1980s, since in those days they were probably fueled up and awaiting orders to destroy the world. There's also SpaceShipOne, the gondola of the first nonstop balloon flight around the world (Breitling Orbiter 3), and a lot of other machines of exploration.

I can see why the place is always so crowded. The collection is beyond cool. And while the rest of my family might not have been quite as impressed as I was, I'm sure they took something important away from the experience.

At the National Museum of American History I got to see another old favorite. One of my favorite presidential statues anywhere, in fact.

Yes, it's the 12-ton, 1841 Horatio Greenough marble of George Washington in Classical garb, offering his sword -- his military power -- to the people after his victory, as Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus did. People find the statue strange, but they haven't read their Livy. Actually, it's still a little strange. All the more reason to like it.

Elsewhere in the museum is a presidential history display, so I had to see that. Ann was much impressed, maybe even more than me, by the top hat Abraham Lincoln wore to Ford's Theater. The exhibit had a lot else besides, such as Lincoln's rifle (not something you picture him carrying around, but he surely did at times), a trout fly that belonged to Grover Cleveland, a bowling pin from the Truman White House bowling alley, part of Eisenhower's coin collection, Bill Clinton's sax ("on loan," the sign said) and much more. None of these things are elegant enough to be on display at the White House, but they are just as presidential as the paintings and marbles there.

Another intriguing object at American History, a floor below the toga'd Washington, is the Vassar Telescope, a fine example of the 19th-century telescope-maker's art. It could also be a feminist icon, for any feminists who concern themselves with the history of science. "On view is the telescope used by Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), the first professional woman astronomer in the United States," says the museum's web site. "She gained recognition in scientific circles through establishing the orbit of a new comet in 1847. The following year, she became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and from 1865 to 1888 she served as professor of astronomy at Vassar Female College." More about her and the telescope is here.

We left American History to find lunch -- the Smithsonian cafeterias always looked crowded and expensive -- but before going I made sure everyone saw the Star-Spangled Banner. "Why is this flag so important?" Yuriko asked. A fair question. Because it's the Star-Spangled Banner, that's why. That wasn't quite a satisfactory answer, not if you didn't grow up hearing "that our flag was still there." But she has heard the National Anthem, and I told her that Francis Scott Key wasn't writing about flags in the abstract or in some poetic sense, but about this flag right here.

The flag is no longer hanging on a wall behind glass. I think it was the last time I saw it. I know that since 2008, it's been behind a new glass wall, dimly but visibly lit, at a slight angle. No rocket's red glare, but it is a luminous presentation.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home