Interviews

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

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.