October 28, 2017

1967. Reshaping the Smithsonian's Image

Smithsonian Plans for Ambitious New Projects
Smithsonian staff working on an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC in the 1960s (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

January 5, 1967

Washington's Smithsonian Institution is like no national museum in the world. It appears to have been started by a fraternity of compulsive string-savers, maidenly antique collectors, and overenthusiastic hobbyists whose interests ranged from aardvark tongues to zebra hides.

Dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge and science, the Smithsonian's motto seems to have been that remark familiar to every do-it-yourself handyman. You know the motto. It goes: "Don't throw it away. We can find a use for it later."

Thus the visitor touring the the Smithsonian's many buildings used to find Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis monoplane, soaring over a collection of Civil War uniforms who compete for attention with cases of old political campaign buttons dating from the days of "Tippecanoe and Tyler too."

Over the years, this hodgepodge of fascinating Americana has earned the noble Institution the label as "the nation's attic." And there still are people who say that no one will ever be able to sort and classify its millions of items, which include some of the most banal sculptures and artwork ever assembled in one place. Let it also be noted that the good work in the Smithsonian's galleries include some of the best art in the world.

Nevertheless, in recent years new and younger curators and experts have joined the Smithsonian. And bit by bit, as new buildings rise, they are reshaping the Institution's displays into exciting new patterns.

Museums, they say, have gotten a bad name over the centuries as being kind of mausoleums of the dead past. Instead, they should be exciting places where men can make a lively identification with their heritage. This new school of curators believe that the museums belong to the people, not only to the students and scholars.

In fact, the Smithsonian's director of education, Charles Blitzer, says that if the public doesn't come to the museums, then the museums should go to the people—and not only in the neighborhood cultural centers such as schools and churches.

Blitzer thinks there should be museum displays in the local barrooms, in the pool parlors, at the corner drugstore or the local beaneries—everywhere and anywhere the people go.

Now Blitzer has had another idea. The Smithsonian has recreated the past with displays of the kind of homes, kitchens, and bedrooms our American ancestors lived in, the kind of clothing they wore, the kind of tools they used and the dishes they ate out of.

"But suddenly it occurred to me," the young curator explained, "that the railroad flat of earlier industrialized America probably had more influence on our time than Abe Lincoln's log cabin."

Consequently, Blitzer has proposed that the Smithsonian search the slum areas of Washington or Baltimore, find an old-time railroad flat complete with the interminable hallway, tiny parlor, and crowded cold-water kitchen, and take the whole thing apart board by board and rebuild it in the Institution.

To make the display realistic, the visitor should be able to hear the scurrying of the resident rats in the walls. And perhaps outside there could be the roaring vibration of the steam locomotives highballing down the main line outside the windows.

It remains to be decided whether the Smithsonian will actually go ahead with its railroad flat exhibit. We hope they do. We can smell that mixture of wet-wash and corned beef and cabbage now.

This is Bill Downs for ABC News in Washington.