The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects

Richard Kurin, Author
Richard Kurin. Penguin Press, $50 (768p) ISBN 978-1-59420-529-3
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As Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture for the Smithsonian Institution, Kurin (Hope Diamond) has intimate knowledge of the organization’s inventory of over 137 million items (that doesn’t include millions and millions of books, photos, documents, recordings, etc.). That blessing had the potential to turn into a curse when he was challenged to select a mere 101 objects that would tell the history of the United States. But he’s done a masterful job. Yes, there are obvious inclusions, like the Declaration of Independence, Neil Armstrong’s space suit, Dorothy’s red ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, and the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk Flyer, but even these well-known items have surprising and significant backstories—the Wright Brothers, for example, contacted the Smithsonian for information on research on flying machines prior to their epic flight. (The Smithsonian happily obliged.) Unexpected selections—like vials of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, and an Emancipation Proclamation pamphlet that freed slaves carried with them—make the book even more engrossing, and, as in the case of the last item, can make for some emotional reading. Kurin does a terrific job of expanding upon the story of each object, whether it’s a pair of slave shackles or a damaged door from one of the New York City fire trucks that responded to 9/11. This humanistic approach to storytelling (he even includes digressions on things that didn’t make it in, like the ubiquitous stuffed animal named after the first President Roosevelt: the teddy bear) makes for immersive, addictive reading. Photos and illus. throughout. (Oct. 29)
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