Jerry Hudis works quietly, painstakingly scraping and brushing away embedded dirt from a 120-million-year-old dinosaur bone. Visitors watch his efforts through the glass-enclosed FossiLab, one of several interactive demonstrations at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. A retired nuclear chemist, Hudis is one of 5,000 volunteer workers at the Smithsonian.
“I’m living every 12-year-old boy’s dream,” says Hudis, 81, with a smile. “I come here to work with dinosaurs and volcanoes.”
For Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, a conservator with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the thrill is equally as intense when she handles a relatively newer artifact: the American flag that flew the morning of Sept. 14, 1814, at Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write “The Star Spangled Banner.” The flag underwent a painstaking restoration, all done in public view, from 1999 to January 2007. Thomassen-Krauss recalls one day, as she left the conservation area, a group of schoolgirls broke into the national anthem. “They just looked at the flag and started singing,” she remembers. “I was moved to tears.
“There are things you will always remember from things you’ve gotten to touch and handle,” Thomassen-Krauss says, “and even though it’s tattered and worn and showing its age, it still survives and still goes on. It also makes you think about the endurance of the country.”
The care and appreciation that workers at the Smithsonian have for artifacts has helped it acquire some of the most historically significant artifacts in the world.
“Other museums all pale in comparison to the Smithsonian,” says Ken Milburn, of Windsor, Ontario, who donated a pair of boxing gloves worn in 1936 by champion Joe Louis. Milburn obtained the gloves by way of his uncle, Earle Cuzzens, who was a member of Louis’ entourage, with the instructions to “do the right thing” with them. That meant donating them to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where they may become part of a future exhibition. “This is where the gloves belong,” Milburn says, “and it makes me real proud.”
It was a generous gift from British scientist James Smithson that laid the foundation for the Smithsonian Institution.
No one knows why Smithson did it, but in 1826, when he wrote his will, he bequeathed his estate to a nephew with the odd clause that should the nephew die without heirs, the estate was to be donated “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Smithson, who never visited America, couldn’t have imagined that he was providing the seed money for what is today the world’s largest museum complex, a repository of the past, present and dreams of the future.
President James K. Polk signed the Smithsonian Institution into existence in 1846. The original museum, a single Romanesque “castle,” was completed in 1855, displaying Smithson’s original collections of archaeological and mineral samples, and today serves as the institution’s headquarters. Through the years, the museum has grown to 19 museums and galleries. Most of them, including the National Air and Space Museum and National Portrait Gallery, are in Washington, D.C., but the Smithsonian also has the National Design Museum in New York City and the air and space museum’s companion facility, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, in Chantilly, Va.
Since its inauguration in 1976, the National Air and Space Museum, located on the National Mall, has become one of the world’s most popular museums; last year the museum and the Udvar-Hazy Center recorded a combined 6 million visits.
On display in the National Mall building are 60 aircraft and spacecraft, including the 1903 Wright Flyer, flown by the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, N.C., and the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia, from the first manned lunar landing mission.
The dream of having a bigger space to display more and larger aircraft became a reality in 2003, with the opening of the Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport. The 176-acre site includes a 294,000-square-foot aviation hangar, home to some 140 aircraft, and a 53,000-square-foot hangar that houses 145 space artifacts, including the first space shuttle, Enterprise.
“The Smithsonian is America’s attic, and we call this America’s hangar,” says retired Marine Maj. Gen. Joe Anderson, deputy director of the Air and Space Museum. “The first thing we get when people walk out on the balcony is ‘Wow.’”
Arrayed on the aviation hangar floor and hanging from the ceiling are some of the nearly 400 aircraft owned by the museum. Sitting in the middle of the hangar is the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan during World War II. Completely restored by 300,000 volunteer- and staff man-hours, the plane looks like it just came off the assembly line.
Also on display are an F-4 Phantom and a Russian-made MiG-21, flown in Vietnam. The F-4 is a sister plane to the F-4 that Anderson flew on 219 combat missions in Vietnam. “It got me home on a number of occasions that I didn’t deserve it, so I have some personal feelings about that one,” he says.
Another one of the Smithsonian’s most-visited museums is the National Museum of American History, which opened to visitors in 1964 in Washington, D.C. The only museum of its kind in the country, it focuses entirely on the “American experience.”
“Our history may be short, but it is a very rich and meaningful history,” says Katy Kendrick, an exhibitions curator at the museum. Because the National Museum of American History is closed for renovations until next summer, Kendrick helped create the “Treasures of American History” exhibit—150 items from the more than 3 million artifacts in the collection—currently on display at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. The exhibit showcases objects that have moved and shaped the country and its people.
“There is no single definition of what a ‘treasure’ might be,” says Peter Liebhold, co-curator of the exhibit. “It came down to showing what it means to be an American.”
Among the items displayed are the chairs that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. Robert E. Lee sat in at Appomattox Court House, Va., where they met to end the Civil War; Judy Garland’s ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz; the Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter where four black men sat to usher in the civil rights movement; and the hat President Abraham Lincoln wore the night of his assassination at Ford’s Theater.
“When you have it in your hands, it’s an amazing kind of moment,” Liebhold says of Lincoln’s hat. “It’s a privilege to be able to touch it, even with the white gloves on.”
The exhibit held a favorite artifact for visitor Emily Bechtold, who had her husband, Rob, take her picture next to a 1960 stage costume worn by singer Patsy Cline. “My grandmother loved Patsy Cline,” Emily says. “When we went on road trips, she would play Patsy Cline, and every time I hear her, I think of my grandmother.”
The Bechtolds recently moved to Arlington, Va., and have been enjoying the Smithsonian’s various museums in nearby Washington, D.C. “We are going to try and see something new every week,” she says. “That place is fantastic.”