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Kermit the Frog, a triceratops, and a horse hit the road

Affiliate museums borrow pieces from Smithsonian

WASHINGTON -- The Apollo 13 space capsule has been to Hutchinson, Kan.

Kermit the Frog has gone to Dubuque, Iowa.

A triceratops skull went to Anniston, Ala.

Lincoln's top hat, the one he was wearing the night of his assassination, visited Danville, Calif.

The four trips are part of a plan to get the Smithsonian Institution to empty its closets. In exchange for a $2,500 annual fee, museums may become Smithsonian affiliates and borrow artifacts. Some are less important items. Some are icons. Some go out on a short-term basis. Some, long-term.

Now 146 museums and cultural organizations are part of the program, called Smithsonian Affiliations. The latest member is the International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, Ky., which has its eye on a famous stuffed steed from the Civil War.

The Smithsonian owns about 136 million objects, 99 percent of which are in storage. Through the affiliates program, more than 7,000 have gone on the road in 10 years.

Meanwhile, the loans give local museums a stamp of approval and can help boost attendance.

``We make it clear they are not mini-Smithsonians or satellites," said Harold Closter, a longtime Smithsonian administrator who directs the affiliations office. ``They are independent and responsible for administration and finances. They are good partners."

Through the program, the Smithsonian achieves one of its goals -- going beyond the Mall -- and builds better relationships with smaller museums. It also sends its specialists out for talks and consultations. Additionally, because members of the local institutions receive Smithsonian membership, circulation of Smithsonian magazine also gets a boost.

Some affiliates have sent exhibitions to Washington, too. At the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, curators used objects from the Smithsonian and 11 countries to create a show about the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War. The exhibition, now in Ottawa, will go to the Smithsonian in December.

A few museums decided the affiliation wasn't working. The Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., belonged for several years and built special cases for Stradivarius instruments it borrowed. But the museum later dropped out.

``As the Chrysler's program has evolved in the last several seasons . . . we have discovered that -- with good will on all sides -- the museum's needs and the offerings of the affiliations program have not matched up," said William Hennessey, the museum's president.

Yet, some of the affiliates still go the extra mile to get an item. When a replica of a triceratops skull became available, folks from the Anniston Museum of Natural History sent a refrigerated truck to haul it to Alabama.

Others make the loans a centerpiece of their displays. The prototype for the first Jeep truck was built in Butler, Pa., in 1940. The nearby Heinz Museum borrowed it from the Smithsonian's American History Museum and placed it right in the entry hall, underscoring its industrial importance.

Andy Masich, the museum's president, said that after becoming an affiliate in 1999, the Heinz added 70,000 square feet for traveling shows from the Smithsonian. ``We have seen a more than 30 percent increase in attendance since our affiliations," Masich said.

Curators for the Heinz found an English flintlock pistol General Edward Braddock gave George Washington in 1755 in the Smithsonian's collection.

``The Smithsonian curators said, `We didn't know we had that!' " Masich said.

When the application for a horse museum came in, an eyebrow was hardly raised, Closter said.

``No chuckles," he said. ``We have gotten used to the fact that there are so many kinds of museums devoted to so many topics that it doesn't surprise us that museums are being devoted to one topic."

Bill Cooke, the Kentucky museum's director, knew a link with the Smithsonian would raise its profile. The largest horse museum in the world, the International Museum of the Horse has 52,000 square feet and owns 50,000 items, from bits to carriages. It focuses mainly on the history of the horse, especially thoroughbred racing.

The museum has equine mannequins but no preserved horses. The Smithsonian, however, has one famous animal: Winchester, the beloved mount of Civil War General Philip Sheridan. Winchester was preserved by taxidermists and eventually landed at the Smithsonian in 1922.

But there is another artifact Cooke covets even more, the skeleton of the famous racehorse Lexington.

``I've got my eye on Lexington. He was a tremendous horse and sire and helped establish Lexington as a horse capital," Cooke said.

The Kentucky museum didn't get promises from the Smithsonian, but Cooke is starting up an e-mail campaign. He's making a trip to Washington in the fall with a wish list.

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