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Treasures in the Smithsonian’s Attic
From robo-badgers to human beards, a search for the strangest items in the Smithsonian’s collections. By Sam Kean
Stubby, a decorated war hero, resides at the American History museum. Photograph Courtesy of the National Museum of American History.
Comments () | Published July 10, 2013

Did you know that one of the most decorated combatants of World War I was a terrier named Stubby?

As I wandered through a labyrinth of display cases at the National Museum of American History, I felt like an excitable schoolchild on a field trip. I was on a quest to find the oddest, most exotic items in the Smithsonian’s collection, and as I approached Stubby’s display case, my inner child was bursting with trivia.

Did you know that Stubby was awarded the equivalent of a Purple Heart and in fact received enough medals (more than a dozen) to cover a whole doggie vest? Did you know he could salute his superiors by raising his paw to his eyebrow? That he took shrapnel in the chest and leg? That he got gassed and then became a valued sentinel against gas because he could smell it before anyone else? Did you know he captured a German spy by cornering him and snarling and that this earned him a promotion to sergeant? And that, after returning home, he met multiple US Presidents and became the mascot of Georgetown University?

Having built things up so much, I half expected to find a shrine to Stubby. Instead, he sat in a crowded display case, beneath a burned-out light bulb. Unlike his pictures online, he was naked—no vest of medals. Worse, while another animal in the case—a one-legged messenger pigeon—got front-and-center billing, Stubby sat near the wall. The placard below him said little—no mention of shrapnel, spies, or Hoyas.

Did you know you can feel crestfallen for a dog that died nearly a century ago?

The reason you learn so little about Stubby in the museum can be summed up in one number: 137 million. That’s how many items the Smithsonian owns. Only around 1 percent are on display, but that still leaves more than a million to take in. It’s a cliché to say you could spend a whole week wandering through the various Smithsonian museums and still not see everything. But it’s a cliché because it’s true. You get overwhelmed, and it’s easy to overlook even the likes of Stubby.

Hunting down the Smithsonian’s most outlandish items was my antidote to weary neglect. I wanted to single some things out—to savor them and learn their stories.

Doing so proved tougher than I imagined, and not just because of the number 137 million. A research institution like the Smithsonian gets understandably sore about being perceived as nothing but a warehouse of weird things—a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum with nicer architecture. So when I started prodding officials about the oddities in their collections, some of them clammed up. A few refused to speak to me.

Still, people naturally love the bizarre, and a few curators graciously opened up about the exotica in their collections. I wanted to focus on neglected items, things you walk by without noticing or that you can’t notice because they’re packed away in storage. But my most important criterion is best summed up by Kathy Golden, the curator who helped get Stubby on display. “He tells a story,” Golden says. “He’s not important like Lincoln’s hat or Jefferson’s Bible, but he tells a story.”

• • •

The Smithsonian owns many firsts. The first cash register, the first margarita machine. The first integrated computer circuit and the first musical instruments used in space (a harmonica and a set of sleigh bells, which played “Jingle Bells” aboard Gemini 6). But the numero uno that caught my attention was the world’s first—and only—pigeon-guided missile system.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner had grand plans for Project Pigeon. Pilots during World War II had no way of aiming missiles—they just dropped them and hoped for the best. An expert on conditioning animals, Skinner decided to train pigeons to steer missiles from the inside. Doing so would certainly shorten and might even win the war for the Allies, he argued.

The military had doubts, but it gave Skinner $25,000 to build a prototype nose cone, which the Smithsonian now owns. It’s a gumdrop-shaped device about two feet long, painted hazard orange and silver.

B.F. Skinner believed that his pigeon-guided missile system would help the Allies win World War II. Photograph courtesy of The National Museum of American History.

Skinner took advantage of the pigeons’ natural tendency to peck things with their beaks. He showed them pictures of enemy ships or ammunition depots, and if they pecked the target, they got a pellet of grain. Eventually the birds could recognize targets without prompting and would peck them repeatedly. Their task inside the nose cone was the same. The cone swings open to reveal three cylindrical coves, each about six inches tall. A single pigeon sat inside each cove, and collectively the birds acted as the missile’s eyes.

In final design, they would have viewed the outside world through a primitive touchscreen. The birds would peck at any targets they saw. If the peck struck the middle of the screen, the missile would stay on course. If it struck off-center, air valves would open and adjust the flight path.

What ultimately doomed Project Pigeon wasn’t the birds. For all their despicable qualities, pigeons proved adept at steering missiles: They’re easily trained, have excellent eyesight, don’t get distracted, don’t get nauseated in freefall, and would keep peck-peck-pecking away at enemy targets even while being exposed to deafening bangs. Instead, the project failed because the missile’s steering systems couldn’t keep up with the birds’ quick, precise instructions.

After the war, advances in electronics made the kamikaze pigeons seem ridiculous, and that’s why the bright-orange nose cone sits in a closet in the American History museum. The nose cone nevertheless remains important to psychology, curator Peggy Kidwell says, because it represents a major shift in Skinner’s thinking. Before the war, he was a timid lab scientist, content merely to describe animal behavior. His success in training pigeons inspired him to think about engineering and controlling behavior, including in humans. He became an outspoken proponent of conditioning people, especially children, and went on to become one of the most influential psychologists in history.

The nose cone also helps remind us, Kidwell says, “how the entire American society was mobilized during World War II.” Pigeons had long carried messages during wars, but to even consider them as active combat participants, she says, “is symbolic of the desperate straits and national concern for missile guidance.”

Just before we part, Kidwell mentions another way World War II affected US society: the shortages, especially of luxury goods like silk. She suggests another odd item to track down—a wedding dress fashioned from the only source of silk available to most Americans in the 1940s: a GI’s parachute.

• • •

The Smithsonian, in fact, owns two parachute dresses and has one on display. But curator Nancy Davis wants to show me the dress in storage, the one with bloodstains. To reach the dress, Davis leads me into what looks like the world’s largest walk-in closet, with row after row of white cabinets. At a glance, I guess that the cabinets are stuffed with jeweled robes, or maybe all the Oscar winners’ dresses—extraordinary things. Instead, most are full of everyday clothes—regular old blouses and pants, even vintage T-shirts and bras.

“It’s the everyday things—the underwear, the things that get used up—that are really valuable,” Davis says. “They tell how people lived their lives” in decades and centuries past. That’s well and good, but this emphasis on everyday clothing (and underwear) has one unintended consequence—standing there, you feel awfully self-conscious about what you left the house wearing that morning. Is this how posterity will judge me?

However important the everyday is to museum research, it’s the extraordinary that captivates people, and a parachute transformed into a wedding gown is pretty extraordinary. As Davis dons gloves and unfolds the dress, even I—a man who doesn’t know his ruffles from his ruches—feel stirred.

The original owner, Major Claude Hensinger, bailed out over Japan in 1944 after his B-29 caught fire. He landed on some rocks, suffering minor injuries, then used the parachute as a pillow and blanket that night. Upon returning home to Pennsylvania, he began courting a woman named Ruth, then proposed to her by giving her the parachute and asking her to make a dress of it.

Davis points out the garment’s elegance—its design was inspired by Gone With the Wind. Still, it retains some vestiges of its former existence. It has heavy-duty parachute seams, and it’s extremely billowy: When Davis starts folding it back into the box, I’m doubtful it will fit.

Somewhere between his crash landing and his rescue, Hensinger bled on the parachute, and while you’d think bloodstains would be easy to find on a wedding dress, Davis and I can’t locate any. At last, we spot them—a few darkened drops in the middle of the back.

Claude and Ruth’s daughter also got married in the dress in 1973, as did their daughter-in-law in 1989. All three women, then, had a drop of Hensinger’s blood near their hearts during the ceremony. Not even a fairy tale could improve on that detail.

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  • Funky Beadwork

    Fascinating!

  • bobsdisqus

    Worthy of taking the time to read!

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Posted at 09:50 AM/ET, 07/10/2013 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles