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Filmed on Monday November 18, 02013

Richard Kurin

American History in 101 Objects

Dr. Richard Kurin is the Smithsonian Institution's Under Secretary for History, Art and Culture and is responsible for most of the national museums as well as numerous cultural and educational programs. His latest book is The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects.

Relics grip us. They anchor stories that matter by giving a visceral sense that they really happened. Look, here is the actual chain used on an American slave. What ended its use? Abraham Lincoln was tall in so many ways, and he stood even taller in his top hat---this hat right here. He wore it. We wear it. The hat and the chain abide at The Smithsonian Institution to help an important story in American history retain its force. This is what museums do.

Richard Kurin, the author of a new book, The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects, is the Institution’s Under Secretary for Art, History, and Culture, responsible for most of the Institution’s many museums and for many of its research and outreach programs.

In his beautifully illustrated talk, Kurin uses treasures of The Smithsonian---some celebrated, some unknown---to tell America’s story so far. It starts long before there was a nation here.

American objects

Figuratively holding up one museum item after another, Kurin spun tales from them. (The Smithsonian has 137 million objects; he displayed just thirty or so.)

The Burgess Shale shows fossilized soft-tissue creatures ("very early North Americans") from 500 million years ago. The Smithsonian’s Giant Magellan Telescope being built in Chile will, when it is completed in 2020, look farther into the universe, and thus farther into the past than any previous telescope---12.8 billion years.

Kurin showed two versions of a portrait of Pocahontas, one later than the other. "You’re always interrogating the objects," he noted. In the early image Pocahontas looks dark and Indian; in the later one she looks white and English.

George Washington’s uniform is elegant and impressive. He designed it himself to give exactly that impression, so the British would know they were fighting equals.

Benjamin Franklin’s walking stick was given to him by the French, who adored his fur cap because it seemed to embody how Americans lived close to nature. The gold top of the stick depicted his fur cap as a "cap of liberty." Kurin observed, "There you have the spirit of America coded in an object."

In 1831 the first locomotive in America, the "John Bull," was assembled from parts sent from England and took up service from New York to Philadelphia at 15 miles per hour. In 1981, the Smithsonian fired up the John Bull and ran it again along old Georgetown rails. It is viewed by 5 million visitors a year at the American History Museum on the Mall.

The Morse-Vail Telegraph from 1844 originally printed the Morse code messages on paper, but that was abandoned when operators realized they could decode the dots and dashes by ear. In the 1840s Secretary of the Smithsonian Joseph Henry collected weather data by telegraph from 600 "citizen scientists" to create: 1) the first weather maps, 2) the first storm warning system, 3) the first use of crowd-sourcing. The National Weather Service resulted.

Abraham Lincoln was 6 foot 4 inches. His stylish top hat made him a target on battlefields. It had a black band as a permanent sign of mourning for his son Willie, dead at 11. He wore the hat to Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. When you hold the hat, Kurin said, "you feel the man."

In 1886 the Smithsonian’s taxidermist William Temple Hornaday brought one of the few remaining American bison back from Montana to a lawn by the Mall and began a breeding program that eventually grew into The National Zoo. His book, The Extermination of the American Bison, is "considered today the first important book of the American conservation movement."

Dorothy’s magic slippers in The Wizard of Oz are silver in the book but were ruby in the movie (and at the museum) to show off the brand-new Technicolor. The Smithsonian chronicles the advance of technology and also employs it. The next Smithsonian building to open in Washington, near the White House, will feature digital-projection walls, so that every few minutes it is a museum of something else.

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