Georgina Goodlander, Interpretive Programs Manager at the Luce Foundation Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and LRS-V Panelist for, “Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) and 21st Century Literacies” shares the following:
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is housed in the Historic Patent Office Building in downtown Washington D.C. When I give museum tours, people are always fascinated to learn about the history of the building. Originally constructed in the mid-1800s, the building was conceived as a “temple of invention” and designed to symbolize America’s creative genius and technical superiority. It housed patent examiners as well as the models that were a requirement of the patent application process. These models were displayed in glass cases on three wings of the third floor. The area in the west wing that is now home to the Luce Foundation Center for American Art (the American Art Museum’s visible storage facility) was where the rejected patent models were displayed.
On September 24, 1877, there was a major fire in the building that destroyed much of the north and west wings. Fortunately, employees were able to save over 200,000 original patent drawings and some of the models, but all of the rejected models were destroyed. By 1880, the requirement for submitting a model with a patent application was discontinued and the patent office eventually disposed of all the remaining models in its collection. The Smithsonian was given first choice, and the National Museum of American History acquired 6,000 models.
Recently, my colleagues over at the American History Museum published an online index of these patents, which provides a fascinating insight into the variety of models that you would have seen had you visited the Patent Office in the nineteenth century. Bear in mind that at its peak, the Patent Office had over 200,000 models, each no larger than one cubic foot. They were grouped by subject and “crammed” into tall cases. It must have been an amazing sight!
Now here’s where things get mighty peculiar. Recently a mysterious document that appears to date back to the fire of 1877 was found crumpled under one of the old models. The document cryptically refers to “Cabinet No. 1171706,” which is otherwise unreferenced in any extant maps or records of the model halls.
I’ve hit a wall trying to decipher its meaning, so I’m turning to you, my intrepid readers, to help in the investigation of the artifact (see images, above). Please post a comment if you have a theory or discover anything interesting: who might the initials in the document refer to? What could possibly be housed within a “Cabinet of Curiosities”? What is the meaning of the dire message scrawled at the bottom of the document? If you plan to attend our participatory session on Friday (Session 7C), bring a laptop and your knowledge of how to find old patents and historical documents—and help us rewrite (and remake) history!