The Smithsonian Picks “101 Objects That Made America”


The Smith­so­ni­an’s 19 muse­ums, 9 research cen­ters, and 140-plus affil­i­ates boast the world’s largest collection—137 mil­lion items, in addi­tion to a stag­ger­ing array of pho­tos, doc­u­ments, films, and record­ings. Choos­ing which to include in The Smith­so­ni­an’s His­to­ry of Amer­i­ca in 101 Objects (pub­lished on Octo­ber 29) from such a wealth of options was no easy task. (On the oth­er hand, the Direc­tor of the British Muse­um Neil Mac­Gre­gor did man­age to encap­su­late two mil­lion years of world his­to­ry in one object less…)

Anthro­pol­o­gist Richard Kurin, the Smith­son­ian Insti­tu­tion’s Under Sec­re­tary for His­to­ry, Art, and Cul­ture, pri­or­i­tized objects with vivid biogra­phies. There may be no way for a muse­um to recre­ate the Civ­il War, as he notes, but a “hand-drawn bat­tle map of the time, a bul­let or gun­nery shelf, a uni­form bear­ing evi­dence of wounds, and bro­ken met­al shack­les are all objects that, hav­ing been present at the event depict­ed, can speak to the larg­er sto­ry. The parts stand for the whole.”

Celebri­ty may have fac­tored into the selec­tion process, too. Not every entry is bespan­gled with a famous name, but one can’t over­look the vic­ar­i­ous thrill inher­ent in Cesar Chavez’s union jack­et, Abra­ham Lin­col­n’s top hat, Helen Keller’s watch, or Mar­i­an Ander­son­’s mink coat.  Who can say whether these res­o­nances will lose their lus­ter in the future. In his intro­duc­tion, Kurin uses the steer­ing wheel of the U.S.S. Maine, once an object of keen nation­al inter­est due to its role in the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War, to exem­pli­fy the descent into obscu­ri­ty.

To cel­e­brate the pub­li­ca­tion of The Smith­so­ni­an’s His­to­ry of Amer­i­ca in 101 Objectsthe Smith­son­ian Chan­nel will be pro­fil­ing some of the items in a four-part series, Seri­ous­ly Amaz­ing™ Objects (love the trade­mark, guys).

In the mean­time, have a browse through an online gallery fea­tur­ing 50 of Kur­in’s picks.

Or enjoy these three sam­ples, select­ed by yours tru­ly for their uni­fy­ing round­ness. (I could nev­er accom­plish any­thing on the order of Kur­in’s feat, but encour­age the Smith­son­ian to get in touch when­ev­er they’re in the mar­ket for some­one who could repack­age their col­lec­tion as board books for infants…)


Negro League Base­ball

1937, Amer­i­can His­to­ry Muse­um

Sports­writer Frank Deford ful­fills Kur­in’s bio­graph­ic require­ments with an essay on the larg­er social impli­ca­tions behind this arti­fact, which scored a home run for Buck Leonard and the East line­up in the ’37 Comiskey All-Star game.


USS Okla­homa Stamp

1941, Postal Muse­um

“To record when a piece of mail was processed aboard ship, the Navy used wood­en post­mark stamps. This one bears an omi­nous date: Dec 6, 1941 PM. It was recov­ered from the bat­tle­ship Okla­homa after it was hit by sev­er­al tor­pe­does, list­ed to a 45-degree angle, cap­sized and sank in the attack on Pearl Har­bor on Decem­ber 7, 1941. The Okla­homa lost 429 sailors and Marines, a third of its crew.”



The Pill

c. 1965 Amer­i­can His­to­ry Muse­um

As Natal­ie Ang­i­er, author of Woman: An Inti­mate Geog­ra­phy point­ed out in a recent arti­cle in Smith­son­ian mag­a­zine, “when peo­ple speak of the Pill, you know they don’t mean aspirin or Prozac but rather that moth­er of all block­buster drugs, the birth con­trol pill.”  A pin­na­cle of both med­ical and fem­i­nist his­to­ry, its sig­nif­i­cance extends well beyond the nation­al bor­ders.

How about you, read­ers? What item from a muse­um col­lec­tion would you include in a book on Amer­i­can His­to­ry?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ani­mat­ed Ver­sion of Howard Zinn’s His­to­ry of the Amer­i­can Empire

Pulitzer Prize Win­ner Picks Essen­tial US His­to­ry Books

Dis­cov­er Thomas Jefferson’s Cut-and-Paste Ver­sion of the Bible, and Read the Curi­ous Edi­tion Online

Ayun Hal­l­i­day remem­bers the amaze­ment she felt see­ing Archie and Edith’s chairs on an 8th grade field trip to Wash­ing­ton DC. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • AB says:

    Thanks for post­ing this. The Smith­son­ian Muse­ums are a trea­sure chest of icons. How would one pick out 101 items? I was men­tal­ly prepar­ing myself to pro­vide a lengthy response to 3 items I felt should not have been left out and then I hit the scroll down but­ton and imme­di­ate­ly see a pic­ture of a base­ball and read that it was used in a Negro League All-Star Game. Bang! Pow! 2 down. Still, I thought, there is no way this Richard Kurin will go back far enough. Sure­ly he won’t con­sid­er the clo­vis point. Indeed he does! Well done, Mr. Kurin.

  • Bart says:

    The elec­tric chair and the atom­ic bomb?

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.