The Smithsonian Institution's Richard Kurin on studying history through objects

The Smithsonian Institution's Richard Kurin on studying history through objects
Courtesy of The Smithsonian Institution

History can build and destroy nations, create and end wars and help society wrangle with ethical obligations and failures. But when teachers reduce it to an endless scroll of names and dates that have been stripped of context, history loses its power.

The Smithsonian Institution's Richard Kurin is on a mission to change the public's relationship to the past. Working with his colleagues, the academic historian has distilled his museum's 137,000,000 historical and cultural artifacts into 101 iconic pieces he discusses in The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects. In advance of his Tuesday night reading at History Colorado, Westword spoke with Kurin about his book.

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Westword: Where did the idea for the book come from?

Richard Kurin: The impetus came from A History of the World in 100 Objects put out by the British Museum. That did pretty well in Great Britain. Some publishers called me and said, "How about doing one on American history?" I did what I usually do in a case like that. I asked my wife. She's a school teacher, and she said, "Yeah. You've got to do it. We don't teach history in the schools anymore. We have increasing diversity in the country and it's important for Americans to know who they are." So she said, "You've got to do it." I said, "Okay, I'll do it." I had only one condition with Penguin. They said, "What's your condition?" I said, "Well, the Brits had a hundred objects. We're Americans. We need 101. That's how it got to be that way.

Talk about what it means to approach history through objects?

It's kind of what museums do, don't they? It's an interesting thing. This whole idea that there is a 101 top list, as historians, we're reluctant to do it. But if that can serve as a hook that can get people interested, I think that's good. I'm a scholar. I'm an academic. I do technical studies. The idea of doing something like this is to really speak to a lot of people, to lay-people, to history buffs, to teachers, to others with an interest and try to kindle that.

I did an event in Los Angeles a few weeks ago with Henry Winkler -- remember Henry? Fonzie? Henry Winkler's looking at the book. He says, "Hey, my leather jacket's in the Smithsonian. How come it's not in the book?"

It speaks to a good thing about our country. We're very democratic in the sense that everybody wants to participate and be involved in stuff. Look at our TV shows and American Idol. The idea that people want to be included in such a list, to be included in American history, to feel that they had something to say, that's a good thing. Talk about the process of narrowing it down to the 101?

We have 137,000,000 objects. The museum has the biggest collection of stuff on the planet, so it's not easy to do. I sent out a message to fellow directors around the institution, to curators. We have hundreds of them. People came up with their suggestions.

We have the National Postal Museum, and they suggested one hundred stamps, and maybe one other object, like the Star Spangled Banner or something. Everybody had their favorites. the Portrait Gallery sent me lists and lists of portraits. Natural History sent me 150 items. A lot of people sent me literally thousands. I took those lists and those suggestions.

We have nineteen museums; we have 31 million visitors a year. We are by far the most visited museum on the planet. If you look at where the carpet is worn out, you say, "How did the American people vote with their feet? Where did they go? What did they gravitate to?" I wanted to include in the book objects that were popular, that may not have been the curators' first choices, but they were popular with our visitors. Then I picked some objects that had never been on exhibit before that are not well known but that told a really interesting story and fleshed out American history. I wanted to make sure that I had things distributed across the country, across the different eras of our history, of our culture and our politics and our artwork. In the end, I made the judicious choice.

Read on for more from Richard Kurin.  

The Smithsonian Institution's Richard Kurin on studying history through objects
Courtesy of The Smithsonian Institution

How much are you intending to legitimize the mythology of "country?" How much of what you do questions that concept?

In the book, I deal with Manifest Destiny. It helped define the country. I think I feel the growth of the country, not in take-it-for-granted terms, but rather in terms of its historicity. I don't take for granted the country. The country develops and takes this idea of itself and what it's supposed to be and what it's supposed to become and who's in it and whose not in it.

The revolutionaries in Europe, it's not like those people thought of themselves as Americans. They thought of themselves as British and they were. The guys who ran the revolution were British citizens. They thought of themselves as British. It was only after the composition of the Star Spangled Banner and in the post-War of 1812, as a period, where American identity and culture starts becoming articulate. Later on, with the USS Maine, there was a very strong idea at that time of Manifest Destiny, that we would become this empire amongst the world of European empires. The steering wheel of the Maine was put right next to George Washington's uniform and the Declaration of Independence. The United States' imperial ambitions seemed central to its idea of nationhood as opposed to its founding, which was like, "Leave us alone and treat us fairly."

The Smithsonian itself is trying to represent this idea of nationhood. I think through the book, I try to deal with the changing nature of defining American nationhood.

There are a couple objects from your book that stuck out for me: Dorothy's slippers and Harriet Tubman's hymnal. Could you speak to your methodology around these two examples?

The methodology is what we try to do in the museum and sometimes you can get overwhelmed with it. It really is using the object as a way into a larger understanding of historical events, biography and personality, major developments in our history. The object has to tell a good story. When you're dealing with something like artwork, you have to decode artwork to understand the symbolism. Artwork self-consciously comments on a period, an event, an activity or a place.

You take something like Dorothy's slippers, and you see the slippers, and you watch the TV program on television every year. It's hard to understand what that meant. It was a movie that came out during the depression, and it kind of construed a mythology that the heartland was good. Home was good. There were a lot of things to be grateful for, even during hard times. Just because things were hard doesn't mean that Americans couldn't imagine wonderful things.

The Wizard of Oz compelled Americans at that time. Some people connote it as being escapist, but I think it's kind of an aspirational and almost redemptive film. The ruby slippers themselves become that way in Frank Baum's novel. They were similar. People commented on them. It was a play on William Jennings Bryan. The wizard was the president. The Yellow Brick Road was the gold standard. The silver slippers were the silver standard. The Scarecrow was the farm world. The Tin Man was industry. There was this whole parody.

There was a film that came the year before that changed things. It was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. These guys from MIT and another guy invented a process called Technicolor. With Technicolor, all of a sudden, you could present to the public all these rainbow colors on the screen. That changed film, changed cinematography.

When they filmed those silver slippers, they looked pretty grayed out. They got to the color they got to because of a change in technology. The slippers tell these two stories. One of them is about the role of the film in American consciousness, how America fell in love with Judy Garland. The other speaks to something very basic which is this technological change that makes things the way they are. It's a wonderful dual story for me.

Harriet Tubman's hymnal is very moving. Tubman always had visions from very early on. She was deeply religious, and she had these visions through her life. I think it helped give her purpose, in terms of helping her free slaves and get them going on the Underground Railroad. She always sang hymns. For her, human beings had a divine purpose. She saw herself as a vehicle of that. The hymnal captures that in a way. She was illiterate, but she nevertheless held the hymnal as though it had talismanic qualities. It brought her closer to God and spirituality.

I love the fact that as you hold the book, as I have in my hands, when you hold the book Harriet Tubman held, you're really touching history. You're really connecting to it. When you let it fall open, it falls open on Swing Low Sweet Chariot, which was one of her favorite hymns and was sung at her funeral. This is a way of connecting to history, a very visceral way.

Kurin will speak tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the History Colorado Center, 1200 Broadway. Tickets are $8 for members and $10 for nonmembers. For more information, call 303-866-2394 or go to historycolorado.org. Follow me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris


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