Sunday, August 07, 2005

Smithsonian Institution

I made arrangements to pick up my friend today at Sibley Hospital, following her surgery. I hadn't been there in a while, and I was impressed with the staff and the ambiance. Money will do that, won't it? We talked on our drive home about how much we missed the literary lectures at the Woodrow Wilson Institute For International Scholars which used to be conducted by Dr. James Morris. At that time, the Institute was housed in the Castle at the Smithsonian Institution, and a visiting writer would be provided a stipend to come and present a paper on an agreed upon subject. It was a wonderful physical space to inhabit. The library where the lectures were held had a small cathedral-like rose window, circular stairs and walkways to the book stacks, a bronze bust of Woodrow Wilson and Gothic-arched, leaded windows. The outer reception room was oval and covered in a William Morris wallpaper with bookcases and wicker furntiture. Very Virginia Wolff; not that Virginia and William were of the same aesthetic, but the overall feel of the place. The elevator that takes you to the upper levels is probably the original: old and wobbly and with a brass cross-hatched gate that slides in front of you--a highly atmospheric setting to sit in and contemplate literature.

When I was a student, and working during the summer for the Smithsonian (thinking I would be a paleontologist) in the Natural Museum of Natural History, I would try to escape the tourists on my lunch hour, and I discovered most of them never set foot in the Freer Art Gallery. Once tourists came up to me and asked if it was a post office. I loved being in the Freer because it was quiet and cool and the courtyard was a lovely wisteria covered atrium. My favorite rooms were where the Japanese screens were displayed, but especially the Whistler Peacock Room.

The guards became used to seeing me sit in there, and one day one of them asked if I knew that the room had a secret window (usually covered by the painted shutters.) He took me over to the corner where the window is housed, pulled the shutters back, and I was allowed a rare viewing of the Peacock Room in daylight. Days like that were and are gifts to be savored and treasured over time.

I was given fairly free reign to wander around the museum before opening hours, but the one place I was always restricted from entering was the Gem Hall where the Hope Diamond is displayed. I was always poking around back stairwells in the museum, and one day it backfired on me. I went through a walkway to cut into another area, and I entered a fire door which slammed behind me and remained locked. I was high up in the museum and facing an interior wall that is never seen by the public with very dirty windows going down to these depths that spiked my adrenaline. Everything was out of scale and huge. I knew I was in serious trouble when I glanced down and saw that each stair tread was coated in a thick layer of dust...and not one footprint. The lack of footprints held me there frozen. The first thought that popped into my mind was "I could die back here." It was evident the stairs were not in good condition and equally obvious that no one had been in this area of the museum for a long time. My point of entry, before I went through the door, was isolated, and I spent a few seconds berating myself for being so stupid. If I pounded on the door for help, I would certainly be hauled before some adminstrative authority, so there I was, the wall behind me pressing me into this narrow space between itself and the window and nothing but unstable wooden stairs winding all the way down to ground level. I was grateful that I wasn't afraid of heights, but the visual space I was confined in was unnerving, given it's height and the window and this sense of being held by a thread over a huge drop. At each level I would stop and test the next door (always locked) all the way to the bottom. When I got to the bottom level, I could hear the bouncing voices of the tourists on the next wall. I tested the door and came walking right out next to an exhibit. People were so startled to see me, as I was them, that we all jumped.

The Smithsonian had brought over a Gutenberg Press from Germany that summer, and I befriended the two printers sent to operate it. One day, one of them presented me with a piece of linen, and he let me print a page of the Gutenberg Bible on it. I now have that framed in my living room. When you are visiting the Natural History Museum, you never really think about what is going on behind it's walls, and I was so lucky to be allowed to roam (pre- 9/11) and see the drawers full of skeletons or butterflies or ferns. It's the treasures and study behind the walls that are what the tourists should really be seeing. I was always grateful for my time spent there in there learning, and, quite frankly, snooping.

Johannes Gutenberg...

aka Jake Gutenblog

....and now we have the internet...and blogs.


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