Thank you for joining History Explorers! We’re looking forward to working with you and sharing ideas in this history community. As promised, you’ll find the link to information on secret message in Lincoln’s pocket watch. Have questions about it? Or about the National Museum of American History? Post them here, and we'll answer what we can!
A Secret Message Inside Lincoln’s Watch?
We do have a few good places to find out fun stuff about us…
Here’s is a quick post from our blog with 25 random things about the Museum: http://blog.americanhistory.si.edu/osaycanyousee/2009/04/25-random-things-about-me.html
And a collection of some of our most popular artifacts: http://www.smithsonianlegacies.si.edu/popular.cfm
And in case you ever wondered about the more unusual, intriguing items in our collection, you can find a list of favorites here: http://www.smithsonianlegacies.si.edu/intriguing.cfm
National Museum of American History/Smithsonian's History Explorer
Good questions! Here are comments directly from our Office of Curatorial Affairs.
How do we choose artifacts for the collection?
In general, the museum accepts only those items that truly fill a gap in or complement our collections. Most artifacts are donated to the Smithsonian by individuals, private collectors and federal agencies such as NASA, the U.S. Postal Service and others. Thousands of items also come to the Smithsonian through bequests, purchases, and exchanges with other museums. Museum curators and directors seek objects that are appropriate to their particular collections, authentic, and of historic, artistic or scientific significance. Curators also consider the size of an object, its exhibit potential—physical condition, amount of work required to prepare it for display—and its “readability” (whether a visitor can understand the object by looking at it).
In terms of deciding which objects to put on display, the curatorial staff includes objects that help to illustrate the larger stories they hope to tell, or choose remarkable artifacts as the basis for smaller exhibitions (Cosmos in Miniature is one example). A decision to display an object is also based in part on its physical condition. Read more below!
How do we decide which artifacts to display or return to storage?
From the museum’s perspective history is never fixed, but constantly undergoing new developments as researchers reveal other interesting narratives. The museum’s curatorial teams go to great lengths to explore, understand, and present updated and relevant areas within American history. In particular, historical narrative here is not presented as the sole interpretation or the entire story for we do not consider ourselves to be the final authority on our history. With our limited space we are always working on new and exciting exhibitions that incorporate many relevant topics. Generally, objects over time are removed from display for several reasons. Conservation or preservation may be the reason, as the permanent display of an object can lead to damage from lighting, humidity, and other factors. Additionally, we may rotate objects on and off exhibition to make space for other objects, which have not been displayed for some time.
For more examples of how artifacts make their way here, you may also be interested in these blog posts about some of the Museum's recent acquisitions:
and this press relase on the donation of the original puppets from Sam and Friends, forebearers of the Muppets. There's another example in our America on the Move online exhibition, about the journey of one CTA subway car to the Museum.
You may also be interested in how the Museum has approached recent events. See September 11: Bearing Witness to History, about the Museum's efforts to preserve artifacts from 9/11 and this page from our main Web site on preserving the history of Hurricane Katrina.
It's really a great question--there are plenty of wonderful stories to tell about the objects the Museum holds!
Thanks, I'll do that. Seems to me that teaching history really takes on a "captive audience" when students are told "the story behind the artifact." I'm big on the inside information in the classroom to peak interest such as the inscription on Lincoln's watch. Absolutely fascinating.
Great question, especially for October! I'll have to do some digging for big mysteries or ghost stories connected to our collections (the building opened in 1964, so although our artifacts are older, the museum is relatively new!). In the meantime, of course, many artifacts hold secrets, and here's one, with a possible link to the Titanic. Or, maybe you can help us identify the man in this photograph...I'll keep searching and post what I find!
Thanks for joining, Misti! You're right, that's a tough call. My colleague Jenny and I were talking a few weeks ago about which single artifact we would take if we were allowed to save just one from the museum--assuming it was one we could carry! For sentimental reasons, my immediate response was Kermit, while Jenny chose Lincoln's top hat. Naturally the place is full of treasures with tremendous significance (including, for example, the Woolworth lunch counter from the Greensboro sit-in and George Washington's uniform), and you're right that favorite can mean a lot of things. So, I thought about which object (or objects) had the most profound personal or emotional impact on me, which I can easily say are the artifacts from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection--no one artifact in particular, but all of them, the collection as a whole (which is actually owned by the National Park Service). The Museum, in partnership with NPS, had an exhibition here of those artifacts from 1992-2003, and I remember being moved to tears when I saw them for the first time. You can still find some of the objects in our military history exhibit, The Price of Freedom , and there are a few online, including this item, in our collections search.
My reasons are hard to describe in a short post like this, but I'll give it a try. Of course, I am interested in how people make sense of their experiences and of the past. The artifacts are a view into the thoughts and feelings of individuals (from this period in history and more recently from those who did not live through the conflict) in a way that is not as immediate as other sources but sometimes involves layers of symbols and meaning that are fascinating and that we may or may not be able to access as viewers. I appreciate the way in which visitors have, from the beginning, made quiet but profound political statements through these personal items. I think the whole experience of the monument, too, is one that personalizes a conflict in which the individual soldiers and their motivations were sometimes lost in the political debates around it, and the artifacts speak to that experience; when you go to the Wall, you see yourself reflected in the stone, at the middle you are enveloped by the wall and the names, and the artifacts left behind speak to everyday life in a way that is inescapable. I think, too, that at a national museum, it is easy to get caught up in the stories of founders and presidents, and these are small reminders that we are all actors in our national story. I also hope there is a high school English/literature & history teacher team out there doing a lesson or a discussion on Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and those artifacts...but that's a separate conversation!
What about you? Do you have a favorite object in your institution? Or one here that you particularly love? Or do you remember having a strong response to an artifact or exhibition in the past? I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts, and Jenny and Carrie's responses, too!
Without a doubt....I'd save Thomas Jefferson's writing desk! I love historical artifacts and can always be counted on to be excited to hear the story behind an object.....but when I saw that desk in the museum for the first time....I literally got tears in my eyes...imagining all it had seen and been a part of...and held and used by my favorite president, who was a true Renaissance man...it was a visceral reaction and it would be the thing I made sure to grab first!