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Smithsonian exhibit simulates life of the homeless

The Smithsonian Institution is opening an exhibit on homelessness that tries to give visitors a taste of street life.

The "Etiquette of the Undercaste," which opens today at the Smithsonian's Experimental Gallery, forces visitors to become "performers" and uses the voices of homeless people to narrate the adventure.

The journey takes visitors from the crib of a drug-addicted baby through dark alleys to jail, a park bench and the locked doors of the upper and middle classes. Sirens blare and profanities are shouted.

Smithsonian secretary Robert McC. Adams expects some visitors to be taken aback by the exhibit's "rather harsh" language and avant-garde portrayal of street life.

"Museums were thought to be storehouses of idealized mansions" but now are struggling to define a new relationship to the contemporary world, he said.

Visitors, armed with a tape recorder with the soundtrack, begin their journey by lying in a morgue drawer. The drawer slides into a darkness that erupts into ambulance sirens and operating room lights.

The visitor learns he or she is on a deathbed and about to start a new life, determined by the unlucky spin of a roulette wheel, to be that of a homeless person born to a drug-addicted mother.

The journey brings the visitor face-to-face with a street fighter _ a doll they are asked to punch _ and through dark alleys, a jail cell and a park bench where they listen and watch the drunken dreams of a homeless person.

In one section or the tour, the visitor is asked to recline in a bed and listen to tape recording of a prostitute having sex with a john and being pressured to accept $200.

"Who is smarter, the girl who gets paid for it or the one who gives it away for free?" a woman's voice asks.

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