So, I determined that garage sales and flea markets are to many museum people what water and bread are to everybody else. We love old stuff. And, what passionate art collector, what red-blooded American historian hasn't tuned in to PBS' "Antiques Road Show" at one time or another, only to be flabbergasted by someone who paid .25 for an item at a rummage sale and discovered that it was a piece of Newcomb pottery or a Chinese jade from the 16th century?
That didn't exactly happen to me (I wish), but I did manage to pick up a gem of a book at a yard sale last weekend. No, not a first edition Hemingway or a title signed by Mark Twain but a gorgeous red leather volume of the "Smithsonian Scientific Series," edited by Webster Prentiss True and published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1929. As a bibliophile and admitted dumpster diver, this was an amazing find. The book had been cleared from the homeowner's mother's attic some years ago and was flawlessly preserved, except for the delicious old-paper musk that wafted into the air when I flexed the pages.
I think it's fair to say, however, that this 83-year-old book hadn't been opened too many times before that day--a majority of pages were still attached, unseparated at the corners. Too bad, really, it's a treasure-trove of Smithsonian and American history and especially fascinating to someone who has spent nearly a decade coming in and out of the Smithsonian's "Castle," (1855) and the National Museum of Natural History (1910). Most of the photographs in the book were taken at these sites, among the memborable ones: the Institution's taxidermists' workroom, a 23-foot-high column of Smithsonian publications in the Castle, and an adorable baby hippo (obviously NOT taken inside one of these buildings).
What does the book have to do with SITES? I'm getting there. Hang tight.
Our traveling exhibition Lasting Light: 125 of Grand Canyon Photography has been on the road for a few years and features 60+ amazing images by contemporary canyon photographers. It also gives visitors a look back at those who paved the way for them--Emery and Ellsworth Kolb, Timothy O’Sullivan, and Jack Hillers, a boatman turned photographer on John Wesley Powell's 1872 expedition down the Colorado.
I spent a great deal of time reading about Hillers and Powell while doing research for Lasting Light, and I've seen the wild, wonderful photographs that resulted from their journey. What I hadn't seen was one particular picture of Powell as it appeared in my garage-sale book, nestled into a chapter called "Preserving the Vanishing Story of the Indians." The pages were an homage to Powell's poetic adventure and the Native people he encountered.
It seemed strange that I would have discovered this book--about a place where I work and a figure whom I had studied for one of our exhibitions--in a random neighbhoorhood, at a random house, in a random box. But, alas, the universe reminded me that Powell's presence wasn't random at all, that he had served as the director of the Smithsonian's Bureau of Ethnology until his death in 1902. Most importantly, I was reminded that, at a garage sale, anything is possible.
Have YOU ever made an amazing garage-sale discovery? Tell us about on it Twitter with the hashtag #GarageSale.