Monday, 12 May 2014

Smithsonian Institution Presentation

History of America in 101 Objects
Smithsonian Institution Presentation at Los Angeles Public Library
May 7, 2014

Last Wednesday night, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a Smithsonian Institution event at the downtown central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. The program consisted of Henry Winkler, the actor who played Arthur Fonzarelli on television’s Happy Days, and Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture, discussing Kurin’s new book, History of America in 101 Objects. Winkler chose several objects, projected them on the screen and Kurin did a masterful job of explaining why that particular object was included in the book. Kurin showcased two, three-dimensional replicas from the book (child sized slave shackles from the Middle Passage and Abraham Lincoln’s hat) to demonstrate how the Smithsonian is enabling teachers to bring history alive in their classrooms.  I learned so much about the breadth of the Smithsonian’s holdings as a result of this presentation. The original oversized and tattered star spangled banner, from 1814, which was the inspiration for Francis Scott Key’s lyrics in the national anthem, is there. For California history, they have the first tiny gold flake from Sutter’s Mill in 1848, which marked the beginning of the westward expansion in America. Did you know that Dorothy’s ruby red slippers were supposed to be silver, but filmmakers changed it to red just because of the brand new Technicolor cameras? Those slippers are at the Smithsonian. They also have an eight foot section of the Greensboro lunch counter, Cesar Chavez’s union jacket, pieces of the AIDS memorial quilt, and the Hope Diamond. Kurin shared that the Smithsonian receives 800 million dollars from the government each year, and is responsible for raising 500 million each year. They serve over 30 million people each year at their museums in Washington, D.C.; in fact Kurin used foot traffic as measured by the worn out carpet throughout the museum when choosing which items to include in the book. The task of preserving America’s history can be large and overwhelming at times, it is incredibly important for curators, researchers, and archivists to help us apply context and draw meaning from a discrete group of artifacts.