Where do you keep the items that aren't part of the exhibit?
With over 3 million objects in the collection, only a small percentage of the museum's artifacts are on view at any one moment. Some objects (especially those that researchers and staff need to see most often) are kept in collection storage rooms in the American History building. Most of the collection, however, is crated and stored offsite in warehouses in Virginia and Maryland.
How did you get the Greensboro Woolworth lunch counter from the 60's sit-in?
The acquisition of the Woolworth lunch counter is an interesting story about the process of collecting. In 1993 Bill Yeingst, a curator in what was then the Division of Domestic Life, heard an evening news report that F.W. Woolworth Corporation planned to close 900 stores nationwide. He immediately wondered whether the Elm Street store in Greensboro, North Carolina, was one of the targeted locations. The next day Bill called the Greensboro store, confirmed that is was set to be closed, and then was referred to the corporate office in New York. After talking to several people he won the company's support to acquire a portion of the lunch counter, site of perhaps the most famous civil rights sit-in of the 1960s, and preserve it in the Smithsonian collections. The company's one caveat was that the Smithsonian should first obtain the support of the local community.
The tension between local and national history is something with which Smithsonian staff members constantly wrestle. A story like the Greensboro sit-in is both local and national, and the danger is that a big institution such as the Smithsonian might swoop into town and deprive a community of their own history. Sympathetic to this concern, Bill and other members of the National Museum of American History staff traveled to Greensboro to meet with members of the City Council, leaders of the African American community, and representatives of a small museum set up to preserve the store and eventually convert it into a civil rights museum. After extensive discussions everyone was comfortable that it would be in the best interests of all if an eight foot section of the lunch counter would be removed and shipped to Washington, DC.
Since its arrival at the National Museum of American History, the lunch counter has been on almost constant display, earning the brave protestors of Greensboro, North Carolina, the respect and honor they deserve in helping end “Jim Crow” segregation.
How is the decision made to collect an item, such as Seinfield's puffy shirt, for posterity? How do you know that it will someday be historically significant?
Good question! Knowing what to collect is very difficult and there is no one right answer. Most curators prefer not to collect present day artifacts because it is difficult to separate the seeming importance of current events from what is of long lasting historical importance. The advantage of collecting current day events is that artifacts are available, objects that are ephemeral have not been destroyed, and the individuals involved can be interviewed. It is much easier to collect an event present day than twenty or fifty years after the fact. The disadvantage of collecting present day is that things that seem important today can prove to be marginal in the future.
In the case of the puffy shirt (given the number of episodes of "Seinfeld" that were filmed) it is pretty clear that the show is relatively significant in the pantheon of television programs. Of course it is hard to predict whether people will think that Seinfeld is important to the history of television comedy (or some other issue) in fifty or 100 years.
Perhaps more challenging is the question of September 11. The single most asked question posed to the curatorial team regarding the Treasures of American History is why September 11 isn't represented in the exhibition. Of course a sharp viewer will recognize that the hard hat worn by iron worker Dennis Quinn (who participate in the World Trade Center clean-up) is included in the American Identity section. However the bigger question is why not include September 11 in the National Challenges section of the show? Ignorance of the collection can be dismissed as the two exhibition curators Katy Kendrick and Peter Liebhold were very familiar with the September 11 collection. Katy Kendrick co-authored the Bearing Witness exhibition and Peter Liebhold was part of the September 11 collecting team.