They don’t call it “the Nation’s Attic” for nothing. Visitors to the Smithsonian Institution’s prodigious museums in Washington, D.C. expect to find objects like Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, Jackie Kennedy’s inaugural gown, the Hope diamond—and even former astronaut Mike Collins’ Apollo 11 underwear. But few pilgrims to the national capital’s cultural mecca have seen such wonders as Jimmy Carter’s Bible, John Wilkes Booth’s shackles and Everett Dirksen’s eyeglasses. Like 97 percent of the Smithsonian’s “treasures,” these are awaiting future exhibits and research in storerooms bulging with uncataloged miscellany.
Now, thanks to registrar Philip Leslie, 61, and his crew, who embarked three years ago on the first top-to-bottom tally of the Smithsonian’s trove, these and other items—from astrolabes to Zuni pots—are emerging from closets, boxes and drawers.
“The great counting” is still barely more than half done, but Leslie estimates that some 78 million objects will be on the final computerized accounting of the Smithsonian’s holdings. Already enumerated: 4,785 sea sponges, 278 airplanes, 34,146 nests and eggs, and the pickled brains of two former curators. Says Leslie: “If the Smithsonian doesn’t have an object, very likely no one else does.”
As 5,500 Smithsonian staffers and hundreds of temporaries labor to meet the project’s June 1983 deadline, Leslie is far from sanguine. “God help us, I hope we make it,” he says. Unfortunately, one of two sets of George Washington’s false teeth discovered during the census has been stolen. After the count began, Smithsonian officials also reported the disappearance of 130 silver objects, including a $12,500 Paul Revere pitcher. “We honestly believe it was just lousy record keeping,” says Leslie, “but we can’t be sure.”
Years of neglect have robbed the Smithsonian as well. Withered animal hides, unraveled reed baskets, faded paintings and cracked sculptures have been found in storerooms, some of which hadn’t been disturbed in more than a century. In the botany department of the Museum of Natural History, a heat wave last summer caused some beetle eggs to hatch unexpectedly, and the offspring consumed some rare plants nearby. “You never know what you’ll find when you open the next drawer,” says inventory coordinator Nancy Sinnott. “You might find a spittoon from Speaker [John W.] McCormack or a brick from the Great Wall of China. I found one piece of pottery still wrapped in an 1899 newspaper, when hamburger sold for 34 cents a pound and a man’s suit for $4.” Other finds include an original Edison light bulb (it still works), a silver pen used by statesman-author John Hay and skeletons of some African antelopes shot by President Teddy Roosevelt.
For most of the Smithsonian’s 135 years, curators recorded acquisitions in handwritten ledgers and placed objects wherever there was room, even in hallways and stairwells. “The earliest curators could keep track of everything in two file cabinets,” says Leslie. “Now we have ‘eleventy’ thousand snuffboxes alone scattered over four or five museums.” The Smithsonian has 13 facilities in all, from the National Zoo to the Hirshhorn Museum. To inform the right hand of what the left has acquired, Leslie is computerizing the operation. “For the first time, we’ll have an up-to-date record of everything we own,” he says. A mathematics grad of Lafayette College in his hometown of Easton, Pa., Leslie took a master’s in library science at the University of Illinois in 1952, then set up libraries for corporations such as Goodyear Atomic and Ryan Aeronautical. He and his wife, Ollie, 64, now live in Mount Airy, Md. and own an antique-curio shop in nearby New Market. Predictably, Leslie inventories the store every January.
When the counting and sorting of the Smithsonian’s holdings are finished, many larger pieces will be moved to a new $29 million climate-controlled warehouse in Suitland, Md. Even then, Leslie’s job won’t be over. Despite the inventory’s glacial pace and occasional grumblings from the staff (notably when they were presented with the institution’s 14 million uncataloged stamps), Leslie is already planning another, more detailed inventory. “At this rate,” he says with a wink, “I’ll never be able to retire.”