Recollecting the Presidents

An election year exhibition proudly hails the chiefs

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Back in the old days, when the political conventions still chose the Presidential candidates, Smithsonian curator Herbert Collins would cruise the littered aisles and floors, alert for relics to take home to immortality in the Smithsonian’s collections. Several generations of dedicated curators have gathered such objects for what is today the National Museum of American History’s political history collection. Here reside mementos of the Presidents of the United States beginning with George Washington.

The Smithsonian’s Presidential connection also includes the immensely popular collection of gowns of the First Ladies, many worn at inaugural balls, which have themselves often been held in Smithsonian buildings. And it was former President John Quincy Adams, elected to the House of Representatives after his single term in the White House, who played a leading role in the creation of the Smithsonian in 1846.

After the Smithsonian’s own inauguration, people wasted little time bringing Presidential items to the Institution. But the accumulation of relics has not always been evenly spread across those who served. In the case of some Presidents, like Washington and Lincoln, the collections are strong. On the other hand, Chester A. Arthur’s list includes a fishing reel, a cartoon and little else.

When the Smithsonian decided to honor the Presidency during the 2000 election year with “The American Presidency,” a major exhibition at the National Museum of American History, planners studied the holdings to see what objects they could use to shape such a show. But this is the Smithsonian, after all, and museum exhibits and storerooms yielded a cornucopia of astonishingly varied Presidential artifacts. Meanwhile, the Smithsonian Institution Press weighed in with an impressive catalog also entitled The American Presidency, and a traveling exhibition from the collections of the National Portrait Gallery presented “Presidential Portraits.”

So, long after this year’s election is history, people will still be able to go to the Smithsonian and see the Real Stuff of the Presidents. “We came to realize that doing an exhibition on the American Presidency is a humbling experience,” says Harry Rubenstein, who, with Spencer Crew and Lonnie Bunch, oversaw the preparation of the show, “but thanks to our rich collections, we have been able to offer a unique view of the office and the individuals who occupied it.”

Future exhibitions at the museum will be much aided by a recent $80 million gift. The donation was made by California philanthropist Kenneth E. Behring.

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