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SORRY, THE SMITHSONIAN DOESN’T HAVE ALL ANSWERS

SHARE SORRY, THE SMITHSONIAN DOESN’T HAVE ALL ANSWERS

"There's a mastodon in my back yard."

That's what the woman said when she telephoned the Smithsonian Institution, wondering if scientists could excavate the ice age creature.Then there are the folks who called asking if the Great Wall of China was on exhibit, or how about the "original Bible." You know, 10 Commandments. Tablets. Moses.

Some of the hundreds of calls the Smithsonian fields each day involve age-old questions - what's the name of the man who invented the wheel? Or space-age queries - where can they see flying saucers on display?

"They just assume that everything's here and that we can answer every question," says Cor-delia Benedict, who has supervised the Smithsonian's telephone information services for nearly a decade. "We treat every call respectfully. People don't like to be laughed at."

Besides, even Encyclopedia Britannica researchers have called (asking about the history of the razor blade), and those ingenious questioners from "Jeopardy" often burn up the lines seeking game-show material.

Benedict and three dozen volunteers answer mostly mundane questions: How do you get to the Smithsonian's museums in Washington? When are they open? Does the Metro pass by? The most detailed questions often get shuttled to other departments.

"We don't want to make people look stupid, but some of these questions are off the wall," says Marilyn London, head of the anthropology outreach and public information office. "But no question is a bad question."

And London usually has an answer, or knows who does.

"I think we told the guy who wanted to know who invented the wheel that there was no way of telling," she says. "But my response would have been, how do you know it was a man?"

Here are some samples of curious queries and comments:

-Can a small plane land on the Mall? The caller was sure it could since "all those planes in the Air and Space Museum had to get there somehow."

-Where is the Ark of the Covenant? (Try Indiana Jones movies.)

-Does the Smithsonian display Civil War planes? (The Wright brothers didn't pioneer aviation until 1903.)

-Will the Smithsonian sell the starship Enterprise, used for the popular "Star Trek" television show? "She only wanted it if the transporter was in working condition," Benedict says. (The only life-size Enterprise at the Smithsonian is the nonflying space shuttle.)

-How about the coin George Washington tossed across the Delaware River? The price: $77 million. The question: Did he really toss that coin?

Benedict keeps the gems of the day - about three or four out of every 650 calls made to her department - in a folder that "just gets thicker and thicker."

The Smithsonian might issue a book with 150 of the most interesting queries to mark the museum's 150th year anniversary in 1996, says Benedict, who hopes to title it, "There's a Mastodon in My Back Yard."

Hey, what about that mastodon?

"There was literally a mastodon buried on her ranch," Benedict says. "She was right. We referred her to the vertebrate department, I think."