Twenty years ago, this column began chronicling the Smithsonian's treasures
By Owen Edwards
Smithsonian magazine, May 2009
Twenty years ago this month, an inventive writer and editor at this magazine, Timothy Foote, came up with a concept that has proved decidedly durable. He suggested a recurring column with the title "The Object at Hand" and proposed it to then editor in chief Don Moser. The idea flew and "Object" remains aloft today.
Foote, who had been a senior editor at both Life and Time before joining Smithsonian, says he suspected there were countless tales residing in the Smithsonian's vast collections. "Those objects contain a lot of emotion as well as history," Foote told me recently. His idea was practical as well as prescient. "The column let us use the resources of the Institution," he said, "and connected readers with the collections."
Over the years, many writers have recounted the stories behind the objects, telling tales of everything from George Washington's tent to the bones of a U.S. cavalry camel. Inevitably, given the long life of the column and the extent of the collections, certain subgenres have emerged. Frequent forays have been made into the Institution's clothes closet. Writer Victoria Dawson revealed the back stories of Minnie Pearl's straw hat and Fred Rogers' cardigan sweater. I unearthed the history behind Amelia Earhart's leather flight coat and the "puffy" shirt from a favorite episode of "Seinfeld." The column also has paid homage to such classics as Crayola crayons and such quintessential items of Americana as the Miss America tiara.
For the past seven years, the column has afforded me the opportunity to speak with big-band great Artie Shaw about his clarinet—and with musician Benny Goodman's daughter about her father's clarinet. I've had a side-splitting conversation with comedian Phyllis Diller about her file of jokes. I've interviewed such personal heroes as writer-director Mel Brooks and musician-singer Michael Feinstein. And I've gotten to know some wonderful curators.
So my fellow writers and I—and our millions of readers—owe a debt of thanks to Tim Foote, who realized years ago that "you can just take the object and go...anywhere."
Owen Edwards is author of Elegant Solutions.