Friday, April 26, 2013

Celebrating the Lavish Economy of Thinginess

by Karen L. Mulder, guest blogger
Entrance to the delectations of the Smithsonian Castle off the Mall
If you happen to live around the DC area, get yourself over to the Smithsonian museums right away! On April 16, a news story reported that Washington’s formidable museum network would have to limp along with $41 million in budget cuts. This means that after May 1, certain galleries may close, and the 2014/2015 exhibits schedule will likely be curtailed. News outlets underscore how reducing the salaries of security personnel—the folks who protect each facility and its contents—is the first recourse for trimming the budget. This means that each of the 767 U.S. Park police officers who patrol the actual buildings will be forced to rotate through furloughs without pay. A-hem...we have yet to hear about reduced salaries or schedules for building managers and admin types, who can pull in $87,000 to $112,000 per year. On top of this, the National Park Service people who patrol the Mall sites are working for an institution that will have to manage with $153 million in budget cuts over the next fiscal year, affecting 400 destinations, including the Shenandoah National Park and hundreds of sites on the National Historic Register. Again, evidence of reductions will be seen in fewer openings and more frequent closings, interrupted maintenance programs, and the sad fortunes of staff members who already work for relatively modest salaries. Meanwhile, the poor ol’ Washington Monument will remain swathed in scaffolding, after its 2011 earthquake shake up, and closed until at least July 2013. Well, at least that curtails the need for security staff.
Buffalo exhibited at the Castle in the 1800s
If you’ve ever visited one of the Smithsonian museums, you know how impossible it is to avoid the buzz of thousands of strung-out schoolchildren and wide-eyed tourists circulating through the collections. What is it about a trip to D.C. that entices thousands of teachers and chaperones to spend a day herding cats and sugar lows? For one thing, interactive learning is regaining credence as the modus operandi of education’s future. After all, a ten-year-old with a smart phone has access within half a second to more historical facts than the most learned medieval and Renaissance scholars could hope to glean in a lifetime of erudition. Enticing our children to appreciate the value of historical knowledge, when it is so easily gained, is quite the challenge. For another, living in a virtual society that throws away so much for the sake of fashion can make the solid ‘thinginess’ of things distinctive. This 'thinginess' is why, for example, the curators at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum have worried for decades about the waning odor of their boxcar and discarded shoe collection from Majdanek concentration camp prisoners, which provide one of the most direct visceral hits in the entire USHMM experience.
At least the fiscal hits won’t put much of dent in the Smithsonian’s excellent storage facilities and satellite warehouses—the spaces where, for example, all the mementos left at places like the Vietnam Memorial are stored in perpetuity.
The Smithsonian's garage,  from the air...
Hats left at the Vietnam Memorial, in storage

A friend of mine doing a research project on some lost ‘streaky red’ glass samples from the 1930s reported that when he visited the Smithsonian Museum Support Center, an award-winning architectural complex on 4 1/2-acres in Suitland, Maryland, he felt a little like Maxwell Smart disappearing (or not!) down a phone booth rabbit hole. His guide ushered him through a series of hi-tech security access points that passed through various ‘pods’ containing entire petrified tree trunks, ancient monumental Buddha statues, endless trays of fleas or mosquitoes or exotic animals suspended in formaldehyde, hunting trophies from Theodore Roosevelt’s safaris, geological samples from space expeditions, and weird presidential gifts—in short, all amounting to about 30 million items. This overwhelming deposit of things stabilized in climate-controlled comfort apparently constitutes only one-fourth of the Smithsonian’s collection. Up the way in Landover, the National Park Service manages 2.5 million artifacts that it preserves and occasionally places in the contexts of its historical sites, like Grant’s home. Recently, everything that could be saved from the flooded basements of Ellis Island after Hurricane Sandy joined that batch of stuff.
The things in our national repositories, however, reflect a teensy fragment of the knowledge complex that historians and curators doggedly attempt to preserve for future generations (regardless of the tepid interest that future generations testily exhibit, and I say this as a historian and a professor). Will the objects simply fester in warehouses, disintegrating, or will at least a fraction of them be brought to light, over time, to illuminate how knowledge or expertise has been gained in art, science, nature, politics, and so on?
Fortunately, a fascinating ‘knowledge’ trend has established itself in history and science writing in recent years, aptly represented by research extravaganzas like Simon Winchester’s The Map That Changed the World, and Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded. Discovery and exploration are now set in a larger context of human experience, more like a narrative, under a relatively new rubric known as social history. Social history takes the entire context surrounding a thing, or things, into account. Smithsonian curators are hip to this.
As an example, think about the difference between Jefferson’s parlor of disconnected artifacts (many collected by Lewis and Clark) at Monticello, and anniversary documentaries in the past decade that attempt to reconstruct the daily experiences of the Lewis and Clark expedition from Clark’s rather stiff journal entries.

In fact, the Smithsonian's publishing enterprise basically exists to reveal its riches to the public. Volumes like Contemporary Folk Art (Patterson), Arte Latino (Yorba), Young America (Pastan), The Land Through A Lens (Grundberg), Modern Masters (Mecklenberg and Farrell), Masters of Their Craft (Trapp), and Graphic Masters (Moser) each isolate the discrete ‘stories’ of various objects within a massive collection, selecting images and pithy curatorial factoids that illustrate why the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Each subtitle features the qualifiers ‘highlights’ or ‘treasures,’ which exposes the Smithsonian’s self-promoting formula, dedicated to the valuable task of getting the public into the museum spaces. No mere physical interaction with all Smithsonian’s holdings could inform you as richly as these carefully constructed publications. Taking a look at one before an expedition to DC seems like an invaluable antidote to prevent information overload.
Hey, and don’t laugh about information overload: an accomplished curator friend told me there is actually a recognized disability, something that sounds like ‘Stendahl’s Syndrome,’ that gives the museum-goer migraine-quality headaches and shaky knees. He was diagnosed with the malady, and given a remedy that involved stopping for an espresso and a snack at two-hour intervals so he could unhitch his mind for a few minutes. No kidding!
Anyway, don't be stingy with the Smithsonian, they need your visits, and you need to celebrate the lavish economy of thinginess!
Architectural and art historian Karen L. Mulder has never forgotten the experience of walking across Harvard Yard in 1981 with a weighty 16th-century volume of pressed botanical samples from the Fogg Museum, and no armored guards. She was photographing some of the pages for a publication about Harvard’s collections, and remains deeply attracted to this very day by stories of things.


  1. When I heard about hyperkulturemia, or Stendhal's Syndrome, I thought it was a joke among Social Security Disability workers.
    Apparently, Stendhal experienced some psychosomatic symptoms while viewing art at the Uffizi, and an Italian psychiatrist declared it a syndrome--the Florence Syndrome.
    It is purported to be a reaction to too much exposure to "beauty".

    1. The troubling thing about the sequester is that it was intended as a doomsday mechanism--a threat if the budget was exceeded. That it has been triggered means it has failed, and as a punitive measure, it is designed to be painful.
      But have the powers who devised this come up with a way out?

  2. This is a lot to take in, but I think you did a beautiful job of illustrating the importance that these museums hold, as well as the importance of going out and seeing what is on exhibit. Thank you for the heads up about the terrible budget cuts that are looming on the horizon.

  3. It is a shame that the Smithsonian faces such cuts! It's also a shame that I live so close yet haven't gone in years. I haven't been able to get a peek at any storage facilities, but I'm lucky enough to have a science-y person for a sister who spent a year working at the Museum of Natural History and got me back in the back. She worked within the entomology labs with hundreds upon thousands of cataloged bugs. It was absolutely incredible! In fact, that may have been the last time I went. Thanks for the reminder that I need to make another trip!

  4. I have totally experienced the malady similar to 'Stendahl’s Syndrome' during a long day trip outing to various Smithsonian museums about 7 years ago. I started at the Natural History museum and aside from being slightly distracted by the loud field trip groups shuttling in and out, the experience was really enjoyable. My next stop was The Hirshhorn museum where for the most part I was still rather present, taking in all the art, even the stuff I really didn't appreciate or understand. My mind started fogging up as I was leaving The Hirshhorn I became dizzy, got a headache, and a really terrible taste in my mouth,so I treated myself to a soft pretzel and sat on the mall and tried to shake it off. By the time I arrived at the third exhibition at the The Air and Space museum, I felt a total depersonalization come over me and felt like I was going to pass out, so I had removed myself, walked like a zombie to the metro, and made it home and napped until midnight.

  5. Wow, that's some experience-- reminds me of the first time I road tested in highway traffic.
    Maybe it's a kind of mental overload, like an anxiety attack.

  6. ... an invaluable antidote to prevent information overload.

    As Richard Saul Wurman notes, "the great Information Age is really an explosion of non-information; it is an explosion of data. To deal with the increasing onslaught of data, it is imperative to distinguish between the two; information is that which leads to understanding."

    Inasmuch as the Smithsonian Institution always has tried to help us understand many different things in many different ways, it's too bad that the government has failed to find better ways to attack its budget crisis than to pick on knowledge.

    1. Things without context are baffling and meaningless.
      Context is borne in the minds of the knowledgeable, who must find ways to pass it on.
      Bear context in mind when viewing things, or you will be confused and disoriented.
      America's attic will survive America's current lunacy.
      Institutions fare better than individuals.

  7. Ah, Gioconda...I, for one, could definitely use a dose of the Florence Syndrome, at the Uffizi, RIGHT NOW! I'm not sure about the Stendhal version. But I used to get it at LACMA in LA in the contemporary art section, where, as Anonymous sagely wrote, things out of context (like ideas) become overwhelming. Doesn't it just seem like the Smithsonian is a sitting duck target? You have to wonder about some of the very bad fiscal habits of DC's bureaucracies needing trimming and revision, but from my observation, cultural institutions have been under threat for decades. Karen Mulder (I'm only anonymous today because I'm not up to the tech switch)