American History Museum: Pieces of Our Past

Smithsonian curators probe the meanings of telltale objects

National Museum of American History artifacts
Michelle Delaney holding the original 1888 Kodak and Larry Bird holding a display of campaign buttons. Hugh Talman, SI

When the National Museum of American History reopens this month after a two-year renovation, visitors will get to see a display of 500 newly acquired and previously unseen objects from the three million-item collection. A new central atrium skylight helps illuminate the heart of the building and the exhibit. "We're shedding new light on American history," says museum Director Brent Glass. Here, six curators talk about the artifacts they're most excited to have on view.

Larry Bird
Division of Politics and Reform
Campaign Buttons from the 2008 Presidential Election

"The kinds of things we collect are truly ephemeral; they have no practical shelf life beyond a political campaign. But, for us, they're prized as symbols of activism and engagement. They're also the closest things we have to a national collection representing the comprehensive history of U.S. campaigns, dating back to George Washington.

"If I were a political candidate, I'd rather have people wearing my button or having my bumper sticker on their car than watching my TV commercials. As low-tech as this stuff is, there is a social and personal presumption that once you're wearing a candidate's button, he or she has got your vote."

Dwight Blocker Bowers
Division of Music, Sports and Entertainment
Carrie Bradshaw's laptop from "Sex and the City"

"The laptop really is an iconic prop, symbolizing Carrie as a chronicler of contemporary society. There's probably nothing else on that show that stands out as much in the memories of viewers, short of the Manolo Blahnik shoes.

"I also feel the laptop conveys the idea that Carrie was a character quite different from the women portrayed in earlier sitcoms. She represents the latest stage in the progression from Lucy Ricardo and Mary Tyler Moore—and, more broadly, the evolution of the role of women in America."

Michelle Delaney
Division of Information Technology and Communications, Photography
The 540th Personal Camera manufactured by Kodak in 1888

"The original 1888 Kodak camera arrived loaded with film for 100 photographs, and once the buyers took the pictures they sent the entire camera back to Kodak. For $10, buyers could get new film and their camera back. The Kodak slogan was 'You press the button, we do the rest.' About 13,000 of these cameras were sold within the first year.

"Kodak repackaged photography for the masses. And what does every visitor to the museum have in his or her pocket? A camera. So what we're showing is the evolution of that camera more than a century before the age of digital photography."

David K. Allison
Division of Information Technology and Communications
A 1975 MITS Altair 8800 "Kit" Computer

"When the MITS Altair personal computer was introduced in 1975, the company expected to get a small number of orders. Instead, it got thousands. This is a real hobbyist's computer; users made lots of modifications and add-ons. This one even has a homemade keyboard.

"I love it because it speaks to the spirit of innovation. The era of personal computers is fairly recent, and it's interesting to see where it all got started."

Bonnie Lilienfeld
Division of Home and Community Life
An 18th-century teapot printed with the political slogan "No Stamp Act."

"British potters made this sometime between 1766 and 1770 to commemorate the repeal of the Stamp Act, the first direct tax on the American colonies. It was sold to Americans, demonstrating that trade, not love, conquers all.

"The teapot reveals how household objects were linked with the political message that was sweeping the American colonies. It also allows us to consider the role of women in society, since it's something women would have used. There are only two or three known to exist in the United States."

Judy Chelnick
Division of Medicine and Science
A saw from a surgical set that belonged to John Maynard Woodworth, who became the first Surgeon General of the United States in 1871

"This saw belongs to a set that has everything required for the amputation of an arm or a leg in the 19th century: six trays of surgical instruments in a rosewood case, knives, saws and bone forceps. I don't know how Woodworth would have transported this, because it's not something that he could have strapped on the back of a horse.

"Doctors in the 19th century had their own surgical sets. That changed in the 20th century when surgeons began performing procedures at hospitals. This set is one of the finest American surgical sets of the late 1800s, and it's remarkable that all 80 of the original tools are still intact."

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