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Her World

Sorting Out Washington's Sights

June 26, 1988|JUDITH MORGAN | Morgan, of La Jolla, is a magazine and newspaper writer

It's not easy to lay your hands on the Hope Diamond.

It's not easy to recall where the original Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that in 1814 inspired Francis Scott Key to write a poem that would become the national anthem, hangs.

And what about the Spirit of St. Louis and the Wright Brothers' 1903 flier? Where are those planes stashed?

As one who hides jewelry so that no one, including myself, can find it without a massive search; as one who files the important next to the whimsical and puts both in an unmarked box on a hard-to-reach shelf, I appreciate the Smithsonian Institution, custodian for more than 100 million items of historic or scientific interest.

I also appreciate a lively paperback with a less-than-catchy title: "A Museum Guide to Washington, D.C." (Americana Press: $12.95). The author is Betty Ross, which is about as close as you can get to a patriotic name without taking up stitchery.

Tidy Organization

The book should be appreciated for its clear writing and tidy organization. This is vital when your subject includes the Smithsonian, the world's largest museum complex, a place where lost is found, where extinct is stuffed, where the rare shares space with the recent. No wonder they call it the nation's attic. It is mammoth.

First, Ross sorts out Washington's museums, galleries, libraries, historic houses and clubs by neighborhood. Each museum is organized into floors and special exhibits. Finally, there is a list called, "Author's Choice." These are the well-loved highlights of a collection, the sculptures or spacecraft or First Ladies' gowns.

If, for instance, you or your children care more about grasshoppers than Gauguin, you can make a beeline for the Insect Zoo, which, Ross tells you, is on the second floor of the National Museum of Natural History, one of nine Smithsonian museums on the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Capitol.

While there you can take a turn through the Hall of Gems and stare into the deep-blue eye of the 45.5-carat diamond that's named for a former owner, Henry Thomas Hope of England. Like all great stones it is said to carry a curse, although the Smithsonian, which has owned it since 1959, seems to be thriving.

As for the flag that flew over Ft. McHenry in 1814 and inspired the anthem that forces many of us to fake the high notes, it hangs in the National Museum of American History, which, even by Smithsonian standards, is a mixed bag of trinkets and miracles. The hand-sewn banner, with its 15 stars and stripes, stretches 30 by 34 feet.

A few years ago it was discovered that particles of dirt and fiber were destroying the flag. The chief infiltrator, a Smithsonian official told me, was denim from that All-American wardrobe item, blue jeans.

Now the historic flag is kept behind a protective cover that is slowly lowered, every hour on the half-hour, during a haunting, old-fashioned rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, the Wright Brothers' plane, moon shuttles and other historic craft are displayed in the Milestones of Flight wing of the National Air and Space Museum, said to be the most-visited museum in the world.

I won't give it all away, however.

I won't say where you can see a magnificent portrait of Tallulah Bankhead by Augustus John. I won't hint at the name of the macaw that greets you at the National Geographic Society Explorers Hall.

I won't rave about the magic of the new twin subterranean museums: the skylighted Sackler Gallery, which specializes in Asian Art, and its serene neighbor, the National Museum of African Art.

But Ross does. Talk about a Washington kiss-and-tell; she's hot off the press with a new and expanded edition of her splendid book, in which she names names and addresses and phone numbers, including that of the White House.

As for the title, it's still "A Museum Guide to Washington, D.C." The woman knows no shame.

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