On the first floor of the Smithsonian's Museum of American History sits a relic from the Cold War, an underground nuclear fallout shelter.
Nearby, a black and white TV flashes bulletins from the 1950s with tips about surviving nuclear war. And inside "The Family Fallout Shelter", as it's called, are all the trappings of a typical American home. There's a pantry stocked with Corn Flakes and Velveeta Cheese. How the Smithsonian acquired this shelter was a stroke of luck. Historian Larry Bird is the exhibit's curator. Bird recalls how one afternoon in 1991, he was looking for ideas for a display on science in American life, when the mail arrived.
But not all artifacts offered to the Smithsonian have enough historic or scientific merit to be put on display.
A dumbwaiter brings many unsolicited packages to the public inquiry mail unit in the Castle, the Smithsonian's fortress-like office building. Katherine Neil Ridgley is the unit's manager. On a recent morning, she opened a cardboard box that came in the mail.
Inside the box are bulky eight track tapes, a failed audio innovation from the sixties and seventies. Titles include 'Meet the Beatles' and 'Jesus Christ Superstar.' Several classics by 'The Beach Boys.'
Ridgely says that even stranger stuff has shown up in the mail. One package contained a rubber chicken. Its owner claimed it had survived an expedition to Antarctica. And back in 1976, during the American Bicentennial, one man was so overcome by patriotic fervor that he dyed his beard red, white and blue, cut it off, and sent it to the Smithsonian. And once, Ridgley recalls, she opened an ominous-looking box and was astounded by what she found.
But if an object does have some promise, the Public Inquiry Office contacts museum curators to see if there's any interest in keeping it. Only a few make it into the Smithsonian's 16 museums, which already contain more than 140 million articles. Marlene Rothacker is a former museum correspondence clerk. Rothacker says some donations are so frivolous that they are immediately returned to their senders.
But some of the Museum's most prized possessions are, in fact, gifts. Dorothy's red slippers from 'The Wizard of Oz' were given by an anonymous donor in 1979. They found a home at the Smithsonian's American History Museum.
Often, the Smithsonian looks for objects on its own. One of its most celebrated acquisitions is 'The Spirit of St. Louis', the famed airplane that Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in 1927. While 'Lucky Lindy' was still in the air on his flight, Smithsonian officials sent a telegram ahead of him to Paris, asking if he'd donate his plane. Lindbergh agreed, and 'The Spirit of St. Louis' is now prominently displayed at the Air and Space Museum. But for any common folk with thoughts of making donations, the Smithsonian has one request: send a letter of inquiry FIRST before boxing up and shipping off that stuffed lizard or polyester disco shirt.
In Washington, I'm Lex Gillespie for The Savvy Traveler.
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