Interviews

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

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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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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris

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