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Smithsonian Putting Artifacts Out of the Public Eye Online

Thanks to technology, the public has a chance to get a close-up to a lot of hidden history

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    The Smithsonian has millions of artifacts, but most of them are not on display in museums, so an effort is underway to display them online. Angie Goff reports. (Published Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016)

    The Smithsonian has millions of artifacts, but most of them are not on display in museums, so an effort is underway to display them online.

    At a heavily guarded facility in Maryland, the Smithsonian stores 30 million artifacts, including an 1830s carriage, a high wheel, Evel Knievel’s motorcycle and the original chairs from “Meet the Press.”

    “It's really quite fun to read up on some of those things,” museum specialist James Oakley said. “I mean, I never heard of a Winton.”

    (It’s a race car that only went 1 mile in 43 seconds in 1904.)

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    The Museum of American History is serious about preservation.

    “Sometimes that means keeping things in storage, in dark, in certain climate conditions so that when it comes time for researchers to look at them or for them to go on display they will be in good condition,” curator Shannon Perich said.

    “I always say as a historian you have to be ready to be cold,” curator Alexandra Lord quipped.

    But artifacts don’t just sit in storage, associate curator Diane Wendt said. They are researched.

    In medical collections, drawers and shelves protect surgical tools from the Revolutionary War, the first artificial heart and a condom dispenser from the 1940s — one of the government’s oldest sexual education campaigns, and it reflected the culture of the time: that they were solely to prevent disease, not pregnancy.

    With future exhibits yet to be announced, nobody knows how long those boxes of incredible things will stay locked away, but thanks to technology, the public has a chance to get a close-up to a lot of hidden history. The museum is putting a huge effort to getting items digitized to make them available to the world.

    Project assistant Rachel Anderson spends hours studying and photographing artifacts, capturing various angles. She does it quickly to limit the object’s exposure to light or heat.

    “It's a really big undertaking, and we keep chipping away at it,” Anderson said.

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    The team recently added 2,100 objects to the museum’s growing archives online. It took six months, and there are thousands more to go.

    “What we're engaged with right now is a preservation effort, it's a documentation effort and it's an accessibility effort,” Anderson said.

    There’s a conservation component, too — with a world of labs, work stations and talent with just the right touch to preserve history.