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These sequined shoes were worn by 16-year-old Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. One of several pairs used during filming, these size-five, felt-soled shoes are well-worn, suggesting they were Garland's primary pair for dancing scenes. (National Museum of American History)

Treasures Trove

America's most singular sensations are at the National Air and Space Museum

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For the only time in history, the top hat Abraham Lincoln wore the night he was assassinated is within a few feet of Kermit the Frog, and just down the hall from SpaceShipOne.

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That's because Lincoln's hat, Kermit and more than 150 other iconic items from the National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center (NMAH), which closed in September for a major architectural renovation, are now on display in a unique exhibition, "Treasures of American History," at the National Air and Space Museum.

NMAH will reopen, better than ever, in the summer of 2008. "Treasures," on view until the spring of 2008, is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see some of NMAH's most valuable artifacts in a context that provides a dramatic overview of the entire breadth and extraordinary diversity of American history—its challenges, remarkable individuals and amazing accomplishments.

In a single gallery, visitors see the light bulb Thomas Edison used in his first public demonstration, the desk on which Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, Jacqueline Kennedy's inaugural gown, Dorothy's ruby slippers, the oldest extant John Deere plow and the Woolworth's lunch counter from the 1960 Greensboro sit-in, a poignant reminder of the heroism of the civil rights movement.

"Treasures" is organized in four themes: Creativity and Innovation, American Biography, National Challenges and American Identity. (A book based on the show has just been published by Smithsonian Books.) The exhibition also includes a case dedicated to new acquisitions, because even during the closing, NMAH's collections will continue to grow.

Selecting which objects would be part of the "Treasures" show was difficult, especially since an important goal for the exhibition curators was to represent the rich variety of the American story. The puffy shirt from "Seinfeld," but also General Custer's buckskin coat, is here; as is a page from the Wizard of Oz screenplay, plus Thomas Jefferson's personalized Bible. The last two are among a dozen or so NMAH items that have rarely, if ever, been on display.

Seeing many of NMAH's best treasures in the same building with the Spirit of St. Louis, SpaceShipOne and the Apollo 11 command module will no doubt inspire new realizations among visitors—new appreciations of the difficulties our nation has overcome, of our creative popular culture and of our pioneering achievements.

Ask the Curator is no longer accepting questions. Thank you for your participation.

Answers to your questions:

How do you preserve the items in the collection like Jefferson's bible?

The National Museum of American History takes its mission to care for its collections very seriously. Preserving collections is a complex undertaking involving control of the environment, proper storage materials and techniques, consideration of potential exhibit hazards, conservation treatments and careful object handling. Even when collecting objects, the curatorial staff tries to select objects that are historically important yet structurally stable. Making sure that the collection will last for the future involves nearly all departments of the museum.

About Lawrence M. Small
Lawrence M. Small

Lawrence M. Small was the eleventh secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, serving from 2000 to 2007.

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