“The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects”

By Donna McCrohan Rosenthal

The most visited museum in the world with the most comprehensive collection of objects in the world, the Smithsonian serves as America’s largest and most cherished repository of the things that define our common heritage. In “The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects” (color photos, 762 pages, hardcover, Penguin, 2013, $50.00), Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture Richard Kurin retraces our nation’s saga through 101 iconic treasures selected out of the Smithsonian’s museums that contain some 137 million artifacts plus 19 million photographs, millions of books, recordings, film and videotape, and tens of millions of archival documents. The book more than delivers on its title.

Kurin takes readers from stone tools that belonged to the first Americans, a fragment of Plymouth Rock, an illustrated map of America from circa 1648, the original Star-Spangled Banner, Lewis and Clark’s pocket compass, John Deere’s steel plow, Isaac Singer’s sewing machine, a gold discovery flake from Sutter’s Mill, Alexander Bell’s telephone, Thomas Edison’s light bulb and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chat” microphone to a fallout shelter, a Huey helicopter, Neil Armstrong’s space suit, and keepsakes from the digital age and the dawning of the 21st century. Some entries have ties close to and in our own county, among them Japanese American World War II internment art, Cesar Chavez’s union jacket and the space shuttle Discovery,

The author discusses not only Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe had but also the canvas hoods that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had the assassination conspirators wear during their imprisonment, and not only the more academic aspects of history but also beloved pieces of popular culture, such as Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Julia Child’s kitchen, Katharine Hepburn’s Oscars, Kermit the Frog, and R2-D2 and C-3PO of “Star Wars” fame.

Kurin combines, history, legends, lore, and behind-the-scenes insights. For example, although James Smithson gave his fortune to establish the Smithsonian, he never set foot on US shores. To rectify this situation, none other than Smithsonian regent and telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell traveled to Italy in 1903 to bring Smithson’s remains to their well-deserved resting place in Washington, D.C.

By understanding our past, we build our foundation for the future. This remarkable volume helps you do that while perhaps instilling a better appreciation of citizenship and inspiring you to visit Washington to see these items firsthand.

Story First Published: 2014-02-05