Credit: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

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Resting high on a shelving unit in the storage room of the U.S. Department of the Interior Museum on C Street NW, above rows of acid-free boxes marked with catalog tags, is a diorama of a couple skiing in Yosemite National Park. Though it’s hard to imagine what the diorama is doing here, sharing precious square footage with Native American baskets and an intricate Marshall Islands navigation map, there’s no question why it isn’t on display: It’s ugly. Artlessly painted in Technicolor hues, the Depression-era plaster-and-wax figures look like beta versions of Ken and Barbie, he barrel-chested and with a Dick Tracy jaw line, she impossibly slim and curvaceous despite her winter attire. He’s farther downhill than she is, of course, his scarf held horizontal by the breeze. The diorama keeps company with a fishing scene of the same vintage, which is just as kitschy as its snowbound neighbor.

In the Washington beyond the storage-room door, of course, millions of more edifying objects are on display, in the cases of the Smithsonian Institution, on the walls of the National Gallery of Art, under the dome of the Library of Congress, and in the hallowed halls of numerous other museums, archives, and associations. But there are plenty of other artifacts hidden away where the public can’t see them, and some of them are as beautiful and as fascinating as the things on exhibit.

No, not the surplus items patiently waiting their inevitable turn in the spotlights of some gallery or other. And forget about the Holy Grails and priceless works of art that may or may not be collecting dust in local closets and boiler rooms: They won’t stay hidden forever. Sooner or later, some enterprising curator, historian, or collector will sniff them out and restore them to their rightful places before parades of eager viewers. But what about the things that won’t be exhibited? The works that no one would ever think of hunting for?

“Just because something’s saved doesn’t mean it’s permanently valuable,” says Gail Redman, vice president of collections at the City Museum of Washington, D.C. So some archived and collected items remain where they are, not because of an insidious conspiracy to keep them out of sight, but because of the more mundane limits placed on them by space, fragility, and changing tastes. Most of the time, curators are the only ones who even remember they exist, because, well, they may be the only ones who care.

That’s our loss. Many of these objects may have outlived their value to their institutions, but they’re far from worthless. And they aren’t always where you’d expect them to be. Many of the Washington area’s oldest institutions keep little in their closets. Churches, for example, tend to display whatever they have, because no matter how little one might care for a painting, it would be even more gauche to keep it hidden than to hang it. “You don’t want to offend the donors,” explains Judith Hawks, archivist at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase, Md. “Heaven help you if you do something that stupid.”

As for the government, most federal buildings are overseen by the General Services Administration, which runs its own art-in-offices program. Generally, the only objects that aren’t displayed are the ones being worked on by conservators. The GSA also handles the gifts that government officials receive when they travel abroad, but there is no vault full of off-limits goodies: All the Persian rugs, Chinese porcelain, and other items American dignitaries receive while overseas get appraised and auctioned off on the GSA’s Web site. “Janet Reno brought back an exquisite necklace from Africa once,” recalls Lynne Barbour of the U.S. Department of Justice’s facilities and administrative staff. “Everyone in the office hoped to get it at the auction, but it just got bid up so fast.”

Still, a few things inevitably slip through the cracks, where they remain and accumulate, eluding treasure seekers and trash collectors alike. Don’t expect the same kinds of riches that were turned up earlier this year during an inventory of the Philadelphia school system: There are no lost portraits by Thomas Eakins or sculptures by Augustus Saint-Gaudens here. The following items are a motley assortment. One or two of them could be valuable; the rest might be thrown away without anyone’s noticing. Some used to be on display; some have never been. For a variety of reasons, most of these objects will probably not be exhibited, though curators don’t like saying “never.”

Nonetheless, each one has a story—which is exactly why someone decided to hold on to these things in the first place: Once upon a time, they meant something to someone else.

For the first few years after its 1938 opening, the U.S. Department of the Interior Museum drew more than 10,000 visitors every month. Now the museum averages about 26,000 visitors a year, most of them schoolchildren studying Native American history or exasperated tourists driven from the overcrowded Smithsonian.

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Harold Ickes, who was secretary of the interior when the museum was established, wanted to inform the public not only about his department’s history, but also about its current activities. Each bureau under Ickes’ administration had its own exhibition space where it could educate the public about its missions, programs, and history. The National Park Service chose to use one of its early exhibits to focus on recreation. The original plans called for a series of photographs depicting various forms of recreation—“the prime purpose of our parks”—highlighted by two dioramas, one of skiers in Yosemite, another of hikers on a trail on Mount Rainier.

Though the skiers currently sit in a storage room, no one at Interior knows why the hikers never materialized—or why the museum now owns a fishing scene instead. Made of wood, plaster of Paris, and wax, and colored with oil paint, the dioramas were displayed without interruption from the museum’s inception until 1999, when they were taken down to make room for two Thomas Moran murals installed to celebrate the department’s sesquicentennial. The murals have since moved on, on loan to the Smithsonian Institution, but the dioramas have never been redisplayed. They currently sit on a shelf in the museum’s storage area, and the room they once inhabited now houses an exhibit on Frederick Douglass.

It’s called “the Vault.” In the basement of Georgetown University’s Healy Hall, right in the middle of the Office of Campus Ministry and behind a blue plastic wastebasket, stands a steel door with a series of locks on it. The small, subterranean room that it guards houses the bulk of the university’s art collection.

Georgetown has only one formal space for exhibiting its art, Carroll Parlor, in which are displayed the most valuable objects from the school’s collection: Renaissance and baroque paintings and a few other antiquities. If they’re feeling daring, the collection’s managers put a few other items on the walls of various campus buildings and offices. Everything else they stash in the Vault.

Stacks of artwork, from 17th-century Flemish paintings all the way up to contemporary pieces by aspiring locals, sit among a Civil War drum, stuffed birds from the natural-history museum that used to occupy another campus building, and a measuring stick that the university’s Jesuit administrators once used to determine whether prospective students were tall enough for admission. “We tend to get everything that other people don’t know what else to do with,” says David Alan, an art technician with Georgetown’s Special Collections Department. “We’re quite pleased with a lot of what we get offered, but when the acquisitions are contingent on the tastes of the donors, you’re going to see this kind of variety.”

Take the neoimpressionist portrait of Bill Clinton. It was made by Cindy Sexton Lewis, who knew Clinton distantly while both were undergraduates at Georgetown, and, she says, “always liked him.” After graduating with a degree in German, she moved to New York to work as an artist, then to New Hampshire with her husband. She created the portrait as part of the class of 1968’s 25-year-reunion gift, working from a photograph she took of Clinton after the 1992 election.

Lewis also made another painting of Clinton, depicting him on the campaign trail in New Hampshire. That one hung in the Oval Office during his presidency and is now prominently displayed in the office he keeps in New York. Lewis is a little disappointed that this piece remains stuck in the Vault. “I don’t know why it’s not hanging somewhere,” she says. “I’m sorry it doesn’t have the chance to be seen. I guess any artist would feel this way.”

Lenore Miller, director of George Washington University’s art galleries, has never seen anything like it: “It looks like wicker or rattan,” she says, “and I think it’s originally from the Philippines. But I can’t be sure.”

The twiggy, life-size rendering of a motorcycle, donated by a member of the university’s board of trustees in 2000 and currently stored on campus in the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery, ended up in the art collection because there was nowhere else to put it. “It’s, ah, different,” says Miller, “and it wasn’t on my wish list. But you have to deal with it.” Currently, there are no plans to formally display the piece.

Everyone who gets a chance to see it thinks it’s fabulous, though, and even Miller admits that it’s “really well done.” In fact, when motorcycle fanatic Jay Leno performed on campus in 2002, university officials scoured the globe for a duplicate, hoping to present him with one of his own. But Leno went away empty-handed. “They couldn’t find another one,” says Miller, “and we weren’t going to give him ours.”

Occupying just a few rooms in a wing of its national headquarters in Alexandria, Va., the Salvation Army’s archives isn’t really intended to be seen by the public. The only items on display are a desk that used to belong to Cmdr. Evangeline Booth, the organization’s first female general, and a modest exhibit on recycling efforts during World War II. “First, we have no staff and no money,” explains Archives Center Director Susan Mitchem. “And secondly, while the public is welcome to visit, they don’t really do so, because there’s no point. We’re not here for that.”

Indeed, the main business of the archives is to collect and catalog the records that the Salvation Army generates over the course of its normal business operations. It rarely receives donations of old artifacts. “Most people know not to send us stuff,” says Mitchem, “and what we do receive we push along to our museums.” Somehow, though, the center still ended up with this: a Doughnut Girl helmet.

During World War I, Booth sent some of the Salvation Army’s young women to France to help with the war effort. The Girls set up tents right up alongside the boys on the front line, doing what they could to ease the rampant homesickness and low spirits among the soldiers: cooking meals, darning socks, posting letters, playing music, and holding religious services. When they wanted to make something extra special for the soldiers, so the story goes, the women whipped up a batch of doughnuts after ingredient shortages ruled out cakes and flapjacks. Soon they were frying up thousands of doughnuts each day, distributing them to grateful soldiers and earning themselves their nickname.

Despite enduring the same shooting and shelling as the men, every single Doughnut Girl who went to Europe—close to 200—returned home unharmed and, perhaps more astonishingly, unscandalized. “It’s surprising to us now,” Mitchem says, “but people were different back then. They were good girls, many from Salvation Army families, who saw the Salvation Army as their calling, and there was a lot expected of them.”

Mitchem doesn’t know how the helmet ended up at the archives center—“It was here when I got here, 15 years ago”—but she would be hard-pressed to part with it, even if were going to one of the Salvation Army’s four official museums. “So far,” she says, “no one has asked for it.”

At first glance, the electronics shop in the basement of the National Geographic Society’s building on M Street NW looks exactly as you would expect. Every square inch of space is covered with boxes of equipment: slide projectors, VCRs, DVD players. A bank of obsolete laser-disc players takes up an entire wall.

But peek around the corner and you’ll notice a colorful collection of old signs, plastic knickknacks, and other seemingly incongruous objects. A Lionel electric train sits on a single piece of track. Beside a fake bundle of dynamite is a bird cage decorated with a skeletal hand. A stuffed iguana perches on a log.

National Geographic employees call this random assortment of things “the Shrine.” “It’s all weird, funky stuff from old exhibits or found in the building,” says Senior Electronics Technician Anthony Peritore, the Shrine’s unofficial curator. “Stuff nobody would think about, stuff over time that’s morphed into just, well, stuff. For some reason, we just can’t seem to throw things out.”

Peritore, in his 26th year at National Geographic, doesn’t remember exactly who started the shrine and when. “Over the years, it’s just gotten going,” he says. “Now everyone knows about it, and everyone knows to send stuff down here.”

The iguana is one of the Shrine’s founding items. Originally displayed upstairs in Explorers Hall, it found its way down to the workshop around 1989, where the electronics guys decided to have some fun with motorization. If plugged in, the iguana can walk, swivel its head, and even appear to breathe, thanks to an air bladder that someone inserted in its belly. “We used to have a parrot down here, too,” says Peritore. “Henry. We’d take him to the National Zoo every year to get him checked out, clip his toenails. But he’s retired now. Gone to Florida with a woman who moved down there. Every now and then we get a postcard saying that he’s doing OK.”

Peritore is too busy to actively prowl for new additions for the shrine, though he has his eye on a giant blue bathysphere that is currently on display upstairs as part of an exhibition on underwater exploration. “That would be cool to have down there,” he says. “I don’t know how we’d get it—Explorers Hall has its own storage closet. But if they were ever going to throw it away, we’d take it. We’d find a way to hide it in the Shrine.”

When what would become the Smithsonian American Art Museum opened as the country’s first federal art collection, in 1829, it began to accumulate a broad range of works, both native and foreign. Over the years, however, the museum began to focus more and more on American artwork, and in 1980, it officially revised its mission statement to reflect its newly singular purpose.

“At that point, all the non-American items in our collection were no longer part of the museum’s mission,” explains Senior Curator Joann Moser. Some of these holdings were deaccessioned, but many items remain tucked out of sight at the museum, such as the 90 or so Italian drawings currently housed in its graphic-arts storage room.

The drawings came to the museum in 1929, when New Yorker John Gellatly donated his 1,600-item collection with the stipulation that everything remain with the Smithsonian in perpetuity. Gellatly primarily collected the work of his American contemporaries, but he also sought out older European art for comparison. So along with the Winslow Homers and James McNeill Whistlers, the National Gallery of Art, as the SAAM was known until 1937, received a group of foreign-made artworks that it was charged with holding on to forever.

The unsigned Neapolitan drawings, done in ink, pencil, or pastel, date from the late 16th to the early 18th centuries. Some are careful drawings of figures, hands, and heads. Others depict mythological or religious scenes, saints: Hercules holding a club, the levitation of a female saint, the martyrdom of Saint Abdon and Saint Sennen. A few images are gridded off for eventual transfer to larger, more public media such as murals or frescoes; the rest probably remained ideas. Moser’s favorite is a mid-17th-century ink drawing called Lazarus and the Rich Man. “It’s the one I’d most recommend for reproduction,” she says. “It has wonderful, lively lines and a terrific little dog in the front.”

Don’t count on seeing it anytime soon, though. The museum has been closed for renovations since 2000, and it won’t reopen until July 2006. And even then, these drawings will be available only to scholars on a very limited basis. There is nowhere else to transfer the drawings, because the Smithsonian doesn’t have a museum dedicated to European art, and the other museums that might be interested in borrowing such works, such as the present National Gallery of Art, already have long lists of items from their own collections waiting for display. “Every museum has some pretty wonderful things that just don’t fit with their current missions,” says Moser. “It’s not that we’re hiding them—we just don’t have a particularly appropriate place or opportunity for them to be shown in the Smithsonian.”

These days, the museum probably wouldn’t accept a donation that came with the same kinds of strings that Gellatly attached, but Moser doesn’t mind honoring his request. “It’s fun having them here because they are so different from what we have,” she says. “They’re real hidden treasures.”

When 7-year-old Inge Auerbacher and her mother arrived at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943, the little girl clutched her most prized possession: a doll that her grandmother had given her a few years earlier. Auerbacher had named the doll Marlene, after Marlene Dietrich. She carried it with her during her entire internment, until she and her mother were liberated by American troops in 1945.

After the war, the two emigrated to New York, where Auerbacher became a teacher. Nearly five decades later, she donated the doll to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where it arrived in pieces. The museum had one of its conservators carefully put Marlene back together, and it was able to display the doll long enough for Auerbacher to pay a visit.

“Inge was incredibly moved when she saw it,” says Associate Curator Suzy Snyder. “She would point it out to visitors and tell them about her experience and her doll. She spent her formative years in Theresienstadt, and I think the doll is her only connection to her life and family before the war.” But Marlene came off display in 2003, and the museum has no plans to put it out again. “The textiles are just too fragile,” says Snyder. “The broken pieces stress the object, the material it’s made of is very sensitive to light and humidity, and the doll’s clothes are really vulnerable.”

Auerbacher, now almost 70 years old, continues to live in New York and work with schoolchildren, educating them about the Holocaust. Marlene figures prominently in her presentations. “She never talks about what she didn’t have in Theresienstadt or how she suffered,” says Snyder. “She always says that she had the doll and that was enough. I think the doll’s survival goes hand in hand with her own.”CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.