The new building stands outside the gates of Fort Detrick's Forest Glen Annex. Visitors can just drive up, walk in, and come face to face with a perpetually grinning skeleton directing them to an exhibit on the human body. There, one can see a hairball from the stomach of a 12-year-old girl and the amputated leg of a man with elephantiasis - a disease that causes limbs to become bloated. The leg floats upright in a glass jar like an enormous, pickled sausage.
The museum's collection of 25 million objects includes plenty to inspire fascination, disgust, or both. But it's also a treasure trove for researchers such as Candice Millard, author of the new book Destiny of the Republic, about the assassination of President James Garfield. She wrote in her acknowledgments that she held in her gloved hands at the museum the section of Garfield's spine pierced by a .44-caliber bullet from Charles Guiteau's gun.
Guiteau's brain and partial skeleton are also in the museum's collection.
Deputy director Tim Clarke Jr. said the museum would close in January and reopen by May 21 with its largest-ever display of objects to mark its 150th anniversary. The scope of the exhibits is still being decided, he said.
"We are sure, though, that we are programming and planning an exhibit that will astound our visitors," Clarke said.
The $12 million relocation established a permanent home for an institution that has had 10 addresses since 1862.
That's when Surgeon General William Hammond directed medical officers in the field to collect "specimens of morbid anatomy" for study at the newly founded museum, along with projectiles and foreign bodies. A photograph nearly covering one wall of the museum's new Civil War exhibit shows amputated legs stacked like firewood.
The exhibit also includes the shattered bones of U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles' lower right leg, mounted for display beside a 12-pound cannonball similar to the one that hit him during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.
Most of the museum's objects, including 2,000 microscopes and hundreds of thousands of human brain specimens, are in an off-site warehouse. They will be moved by the spring to a renovated warehouse across the street from the new museum.
Clarke said the requirement to safely pack, move, and unpack each artifact would enable the museum to get a better handle on the number of artifacts in any given collection and the grand scope of the entire collection.
One thing the museum won't do is destructive testing of artifacts. That's what the Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library in Philadelphia learned when it explored the possibility in 2009 of comparing DNA from a Lincoln bloodstain in its own collection to the Lincoln anatomical specimens at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.
Eric J. Schmincke, president of the Philadelphia museum, said he appreciates the desire to keep artifacts intact.
"You don't want to take any chances like that," he said. "It's because you want them to see what you have. It's history."