It is difficult not to laugh at the Smithsonian's latest exhibit. There you are, face to face with the very napkin, cream- colored damask, that Napoleon dabbed against his mouth at the last breakfast before Elba. Ensconced a few paces away is the same space toothbrush, azure blue with a plastic gum massager at the base, that astronauts Col. Frank Borman and Captain James Lovell shared during their 1965 journey to the moon.
They are among the 100 items in a waggish new show, "The Nation's Attic," which the Smithsonian has assembled at its Museum of History and Technology. The show, which comes complete with genteel patinas of dust and silvery cobwebs on its exhibits, will run through this summer.
The pieces have been culled from the museum's collection of more than 15 million objects, artifacts that are grouped into categories like "Superlatives," "Infinite Varieties," objects identified with famous people, "Designs for Unusual Purposes," "Stump the Experts" and "Whatsit?" which ask visitors what they think the thing might have been designed for.
The exhibit is decked out like your great aunt Octavia's attic, with spilled open trunks and packing crates, storage shelves, and an atmosphere of the past that summons up porch swings, screen doors, and lemonade. As you enter, you ring a bell that sounds like something from an old country store.
The show may have been assembled in a slight spirit of sniffiness because the Smithsonian has often been called "The Nation's Attic" -- not a very glorious title for the vast assemblage that includes 24 separate museums running from the famous red brick castle, to the ultra-modern Air and Space Museum.An opening disclaimer states: "It is because people persist in calling us [the attic] that we've unpacked a few of our curiosities and arranged them as they might once have been found beneath the rafters of the oldest building (1855)."
The real show stopper is the first item in the attic: a massively ugly mahogany clock 14 feet tall and the size of a small room. It is decorated as giddily as a wedding cake, with a giant Capitol dome, Statue of Liberty, Confederate soldiers, astrological chart, and a series of set-in oil paintings depicting Mount Vernon, Indian skirmishes, etc. It's called "the greatest historical clock in America," designed by carpenter Roland Hurlburt of Scollay Square, Boston, in 1876.
Stepping smartly along, you pass the world's largest American flag, 235 feet long by 104 feet high, commissioned by the J. L. Hudson department store in Detroit; midget Tom Thumb's shiny black grand piano, and a dusty pair of size 18 shoes made during the Civil War for a Norwegian immigrant 7 feet 2 inches tall.
One of the grimmer items in the attic is a "tramp cart," a black iron, waffle-patterned cage on wheels which the city of Rockport, Maine, used to remove "undesirables" from the city limits in 1850s.
Bugs are big in the exhibit: a cape made from beetle backs and some insect jewelry from Brazil, jade and peacock colored necklaces. Another oddity is a silk purse literally made from a sow's ear, a red and brown striped medieval looking purse made from a pig's ear chemically treated, reduced to fiber, then woven into fabric, in the early '20s.
Curiously, most of the visitors to the exhibit viewed the collection with the sort of solemnity usually reserved for da Vinci's Mona Lisa or Rembrandt's "Night Watch." The only exception was a muffled snicker from a teen-ager first sighting the ornate silver tea service owned by Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, bearing her initials, and the Todd family coat of arms, all resting on scrawny, scaly, sterling silver chicken legs complete with claws. (That's near the piece of stone taken from the dungeon at Rouen where Joan of Arc was imprisoned and the Adolf Hitler bunker teapot and saucer, off-white, with his name emblazoned on it.)
The man who put the exhibit together, Robert Vogel, admits that the public in general is "definitely serious, dead serious about it. I'm not sure why -- perhaps they think that anything in a museum is to be taken very seriously, even though the show is full of whimsy . . . . Many people expect to feel that sort of thing in museums, and it's not at all justified. Many expect a museum to be like Ripley's "Believe It or Not" . . . . And S. Dillon Ripley [the austerely dignified head of the Smithsonian] is frequently confused with [Robert] Ripley" of the comic strip.
Mr. Vogel, as curator of the division of heavy machinery and civil engineering at the Museum of History and TEchnology, has nearly 4.5 million items to oversee. To collect the best for the attic exhibit, he contacted all the curators throughout the museum's empire for objects that would fit into the lists mentioned above. Once the categories were established and the entries came funneling in, he says he rejected very little. Which discounts the idea that the nation's attic is stuffed with trash.
Mr. Vogel's personal favorite is a cast concrete automobile complete with 1926 license plate used by an architect to decorate the front of a Capitol Hill auto showroom. He also admits, with a glimmer of a smile, to a weakness for the fine wire bust of General Grant made in Peru.