Not your Uncle Sam’s attic

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Jessica Gresko and Brett Zongker

Dr. David Skorton, the new Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, oversees 19 museums and the National Zoo. A cardiologist and former president of Cornell University, Skorton enjoys getting feedback from visitors and staff about the Smithsonian’s vast holdings.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

One of the perks of living in the Washington region is our proximity to world-class museums and collections. We may have to share the bounty with more than 20 million tourists each year, but in the winter we can enjoy the National Gallery of Art’s Renoirs, the Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, and the Library of Congress’s vast collections in relative seclusion.

Another beauty of ready access is that we can easily return when something new arrives. Last month, the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, which focuses on crafts and decorative arts and is located across the street from the White House, reopened to the public after an extensive two-year renovation. And the public will be able to greet the National Zoo’s new panda cub Bei Bei starting next month.

Speaking of new arrivals...

With millions of artifacts ranging from first ladies’ dresses to the flag that inspired the national anthem, the Smithsonian Institution has been cheekily known for decades as “The Nation’s Attic.’’ Just don’t let the new head of the Smithsonian catch you calling it that.

David Skorton, the former president of Cornell University who joined the Smithsonian on July 1, says he’s “not fond of that expression.’’

“I think about an attic as somewhere that you sort of put stuff that you used to be interested in and might be interested in again someday. You don’t know for sure. The Smithsonian, I’ve learned, is much more dynamic than that,’’ said Skorton, a physician who was president of the University of Iowa before taking over at Cornell.

Skorton is the Smithsonian’s 13th secretary. He oversees the Smithsonian’s 19 museums and galleries, its zoo, a staff of 6,500, and an annual budget of more than $1 billion. He replaces Wayne Clough, who led the institution for six years.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Skorton appeared to have settled in to his office on the second floor of the Smithsonian Castle, the 1855 building on the National Mall that was the Smithsonian’s first.

In shelves lining one wall, Skorton — a cardiologist — had a model of a heart. A white hard hat from a recent tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, set to open in 2016, sat on a mantle. And in a corner was a music stand where Skorton, who plays jazz flute, says he sometimes plays at the end of a long day.

Then there’s the sign on his desk with the letters “PGATUS.’’ That’s short for: “Please go ask the Under Secretary,” one of Skorton’s deputies. He’s joking, but the sign is an acknowledgement he doesn’t have all the answers.

One thing Skorton has been working on in his first three months is connecting with and hearing from the Smithsonian’s staff. “I’m so hungry for and dependent on that feedback,’’ he said.

At Cornell, he made himself accessible by giving out his email address, joining Facebook, writing for the student newspaper, and living in a dorm for the first week of school. At the Smithsonian, he’s also been giving his email address out and urging people to write.

He says he hopes at some point to join a Smithsonian Sleepover, where kids spend the night in a museum, though the 65-year-old Skorton says he’d need an air mattress. And he said he wants to do other things where he can “taste the experience’’ the Smithsonian is giving visitors.

“I could read a 200-page briefing, and it would be very valuable. But nothing’s quite the same as sitting down with an eighth grader and saying, ‘Is this cool? Is it fun? Is it boring?’” he said.

Skorton likes getting out and talking to visitors when he has time. But not everyone has praise, he says. One father he met in a Smithsonian sculpture garden wanted to know why his daughter couldn’t climb on the sculptures, for example.

Skorton said he has visited each of the Smithsonian’s museums and galleries, though he wants to go back to some for formal tours. He’s also been several times to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, where in September he joined first lady Michelle Obama and China’s first lady, Peng Liyuan, for Bei Bei’s naming. (And, no, even Skorton didn’t actually get to meet the zoo’s most famous resident).

In October, he visited the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Massachusetts, and in January he will visit the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.

Skorton says he is working to learn more about the Smithsonian and its holdings. The doctor in him couldn’t resist taking a peek at the Smithsonian’s collection of stethoscopes, some of which will soon be displayed along with some of his own in a conference room next to his office.

And during a behind-the-scenes tour of the National Museum of American History, he put on latex gloves to hold a baseball glove worn by Sandy Koufax, whom Skorton saw pitch as a boy when he lived in Los Angeles. But when Skorton asked to put his hand inside the glove, he was told: “No, you cannot.’’

Skorton said he thought about pointing out, “I’m the Secretary.’’ But he didn’t. He said the moment reminded him of two things: that he still has “a lot to learn,’’ and that it’s his job to ensure that the Smithsonian’s “stuff’’ is preserved for future generations.

Jerry Lewis at the Library of Congress


The Library of Congress has acquired extensive new archives from the personal collection of comedian Jerry Lewis, including copies of rarely seen films, early television shows and home videos.
Photo by Carrie Nelson/Shutterstock.com

Like the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress includes millions of items, from books to recordings to maps to photographs. It is, in fact, the largest museum in the world.

An extensive archive from comedian Jerry Lewis’ career, including rarely seen films, long-lost TV recordings and home videos, will soon have a new home there.

The collection includes thousands of documents and recordings. Lewis, 89, is donating some items, while others are being purchased by the library from his personal archive. Some materials will be available immediately to researchers in Washington.

The archive chronicles Lewis’ more than 70 years in comedy. Conservators said the recordings will fill significant gaps in TV history, including Lewis’ appearances with Dean Martin on NBC’s “Colgate Comedy Hour” and on “The Tonight Show.”

Why are those shows missing? Blame the economy, or perhaps the environment. Through the 1970s, the network used to reuse video tape, recording over older shows. Many recordings from the 1950s and 1960s don’t exist anywhere else, said Mike Mashon, head of the library’s moving image section. Hence the value of Lewis’ personal collection.

Lewis said he has dedicated his life to making people laugh. He was born into a vaudeville family and began performing at age 5. “If I get more than three people in a room, I do a number,” he said in a statement.

“Knowing that the Library of Congress was interested in acquiring my life’s work was one of the biggest thrills of my life,” he continued. “It’s comforting to know that this small piece of the world of comedy will be preserved and available for future generations.”

Highlights from the collection include 35 mm prints of many of Lewis most popular films, including The Bellboy, The Errand Boy and The Family Jewels. There is also test footage from films, including a silent comedy filmed on the set of The Patsy, and rare footage of Martin and Lewis performing their nightclub act.

Even when he wasn’t shooting a film or TV feature, Lewis was still often performing for fun. Home movies capture some of the “boundless creativity this man had,” even if it was just for his own pleasure, Mashon said. Lewis even produced fully scripted movies at home, starring some of his neighbors.

The recordings and materials will join the library’s existing comedy collection, which documents humorists such as Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and Johnny Carson.

Curators were particularly interested in Lewis’ archive because, Mashon said, he has been one of the most creative figures in American pop culture in the late 20th century — excelling on stage, screen, radio and television. By keeping and organizing so many of his materials, Lewis is “an archivist’s dream,” Mashon added.

James Billington, Librarian of Congress, said the collection will give the world a more complete picture of Lewis as a performer, director, producer, artist, educator and philanthropist.

“He is one of America’s funniest men, who has demonstrated that comedy as a medium for laughter is one of humanity’s greatest gifts,” Billington said.

— AP, with additional reporting by
Barbara Ruben