Smithsonian exhibit amazes crowd

by Monica Schwarze
Features Editor

Joyce Bradshaw circled the glass case with a skeptical look in her eye, carefully examining the beaver-pelt, stove-top hat that lay within.

“That can’t be Lincoln’s hat. I can’t believe I’m really looking at Lincoln’s hat,” she said. “This is just amazing.”

Bradshaw was one of the 13,000 visitors who attended the “America’s Smithsonian” exhibit at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Friday, Feb. 23.

Bradshaw was not alone in her disbelief. The exhibit, which will be at the Convention Center through March 7, is a commemoration of 150 years of Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution, the foremost national institute for art, study and exhibitions, founded with a gift from British scientist James Smithson in 1846.

The traveling exhibition contains only a few of the 140 million objects from the Smithsonian’s 16 museums, archives and libraries, but the collection is impressive, with everything from the Apollo 12 spacecraft to the original Kermit the Frog puppet on display.

“Lincoln’s hat is big today, but each crowd wants to see something different,” said Robert Carnahan, taking a break from guiding visitors through the five exhibition halls. Carnahan first heard about the Smithsonian position while volunteering as a tour guide at the Autry Western Heritage Museum in Los Angeles, where he volunteers three days a week.

“I’m ex-military, so I’ll volunteer for anything,” said Carnahan, a former Marine. “This seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

There are more than 200 volunteers from local museums working at “America’s Smithsonian,” in addition to a full-time tour staff and Los Angeles Police Department security guards. Their job is to guide visitors through the exhibit, provide them with additional information about the displays and entertain them when the lines stretch to over an hour for items such as the Hooker diamond, Lewis and Clark’s compass or Abraham Lincoln’s hat.

At first, Lincoln’s hat caused such a commotion that it was blocking the already long lines through the exhibit.

The hat, along with the Mercury Freedom spacecraft and a Tucker automobile, needed to be moved outside the main exhibit hall for crowd control reasons. Still, on any given day, the lines to the exhibit can be enormous, which is discouraging to some visitors with small children.

“I didn’t expect to be herded in here like cattle,” said Marianne Dunne, who drove three hours from San Diego to visit the exhibit with her two sons, ages 3 and 8. “This is very disappointing. I can’t enjoy it as much as I thought because every time I want to see something, I need to wait another hour.”

Even the wait to attend the exhibit can be exhausting. Visitors may reserve tickets in advance by calling (800) 913-8687. Tickets are free, but there is a $3.50 charge for shipping and handling.

Tickets sell out quickly, especially for weekends, but a limited number of passes are distributed at the box office at 9 a.m. each day.

Tickets specify entrance time, but most visitors should prepare to wait at least an hour to enter the exhibit.

The series of metal detectors that guests must walk through before entering is daunting to some. Visitors are also forbidden from bringing flash cameras, food or pocket knives into the convention center. Failure to comply can result in removal.

“I didn’t expect the metal detector,” said Dunne. “They probably need some security for the crowd, but it was a real hassle.”

Carnahan said that the crowds are unusually large because this is the first time the Smithsonian has taken an exhibit of this magnitude on the road.

“By the time we reach our next stop in Kansas City, we’ll have the kinks worked out,” he said. “Right now, it’s trial and error.”

Carnahan added that the layout of the exhibition was designed with crowd control in mind. Items that were expected to be especially popular were placed in larger areas. But the public taste surprised both Smithsonian employees and volunteers.

“There are some things that I’m amazed people don’t ask about. I don’t think many people ask about the first ladies’ gowns,” said Carnahan, referring to the inaugural ball gowns of Jacqueline Kennedy and Patricia Nixon.

The gowns are on display in the “Remembering” Hall, one of four themed halls that house the displays.

The theme of “Remembering” is nostalgia from America’s past. The hall also houses the ruby red slippers from “The Wizard of Oz,” Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet, Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves and the suede fedora worn by Harrison Ford in the “Indiana Jones” movies.

Other halls are “Discovering,” which celebrates scientific discoveries; the “Imagining Gallery,” which contains famous works of art and “American voices,” a multi-media celebration of American music.

With so many exhibits, some visitors find themselves on information overload.

“There’s so much to see,” said Davis Schultz, a high school junior who intends to write a history report about the exhibit. “I don’t think I’ll remember all of this after I leave. I’ve been here three hours already, and I haven’t seen half of the stuff on display.”

Still, Schultz is happy that he attended the exhibit.

“This is something that I’ll probably tell my grandchildren about. It’s really cool.”

Monica Schwarze, Features Editor
Monica Schwarze

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