Treasures Trove

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

In 1873, San Francisco merchant Levi Strauss and tailor Jacob Davis patented a design for workers' trousers reinforced by copper rivets. Though made of brown duck rather than blue denim, these "Levi's"—one of the oldest known pairs—feature the familiar riveted pockets, button fly, and waistband patch of modern jeans. Initially worn by miners and cowboys, jeans evolved into casual clothing for all ages, classes, and lifestyles. National Museum of American History
The first commercially successful American writing machine, this typewriter was manufactured by E. Remington & Sons from a design patented by Christopher Sholes and Carlos Glidden. The keys were specially arranged to prevent them from jamming and to promote faster typing, creating the "QWERTY" keyboard still used today. National Museum of American History
In a letter dated July 15, 1864, Solomon G. Brown, a general laborer and clerk who served under assistant secretary Spencer Baird, and who wrote to him almost daily, noted: "All here is well—many have been much frightened at the annual visit of the Rebels to their friends at Maryland, but we are told that the johny Rebs are returning home.... I had prepared aplace in center of the cole celler under south tower under stone floor for the deposition of a box of valuables committed to my care should any thing suddenly turn up to prevent them being shipped to a place of safty outside of town." The contents of the box are unknown. S.I. Archives
In 1902, Washington Post cartoonist Clifford Berryman depicted President Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a captured bear offered up as a hunting trophy. The bear became a regular figure in Berryman's cartoons, serving as a fuzzy, cuddly foil for the brawny president. This is one of the earliest teddy bears, created by a Brooklyn candy store owner who went on to form the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company. National Museum of American History
Objects on view from the museum's television collections include Jerry Seinfeld's puffy shirt, Mr. Roger's sweater, Archie Bunker's chair, the Lone Ranger's mask, the "60 Minutes" stopwatch, the "M*A*S*H" signpost, Kunta Kinte's manacles from the miniseries "Roots" and Carrie Bradshaw's laptop from "Sex and the City." National Museum of American History
Ray Bolger wore this patchwork outfit as the Scarecrow, one of the trio of friends who accompany Dorothy to the Emerald City in "The Wizard of Oz." Designed by Adrian, MGM's premier costume artist, the straw-stuffed clothing fit loosely enough so that Bolger could perform his comedic dance number, "If I Only Had a Brain." A sponge-rubber mask, resembling burlap, completed the Scarecrow's costume. Under the hot lights on the set, the mask was stifling, and it frequently had to be replaced. National Museum of American History
The New York Yankees' legendary "Sultan of Swat" signed this baseball for a fan during a visit to Scranton, Pennsylvania. With his record-setting home runs—60 in one season, 714 career total—and larger-than-life personality, Ruth thrilled fans and redefined the character of America's national pastime. National Museum of American History
Created by "Star Wars" filmmaker George Lucas, these two "droids" are among the most famous of all science-fiction robots. The little R2-D2 is spunky and resourceful, while his companion, the more human-looking C-3PO, is a bit of a worrywart. Of course, both of these robots were really costumes with an actor inside. National Museum of American History
Jonas Salk's vaccine used inactivated, or "killed," poliovirus to trigger an immune response against the disease. On April 12, 1955, officials announced the vaccine's success and launched a nationwide immunization campaign. Within a generation, new cases of polio nearly disappeared. National Museum of American History
This key, believed to be from the first American telegraph line, was built by Alfred Vail as an improvement on Samuel Morse's original transmitter. Vail helped Morse develop a practical system for sending and receiving coded electrical signals over a wire, which was successfully demonstrated in 1844. National Museum of American History
Until Charles A. Spencer began making microscopes in Canastota, New York, in 1838, the only high-quality scientific instruments available in the United States were imported from Europe. This brass monocular microscope, equipped with a mirror to reflect light through the slide, could be used with either a compound or a simple lens. National Museum of American History
Unlike earlier cameras that used a glass-plate negative for each exposure, this original Kodak camera, introduced by George Eastman, came preloaded with a 100-exposure roll of flexible film. After finishing the roll, the consumer mailed the camera back to the factory to have the prints made. National Museum of American History
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
This National Broadcasting Company microphone was used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to broadcast radio addresses, known as "fireside chats." Through times of crisis such as the Great Depression and World War II, Roosevelt broadcast more than 30 fireside chats between 1933 and 1944 and developed an intimate, reassuring rapport with the American people that helped build confidence in his leadership. In his first broadcast on March 12, 1933, Roosevelt explained his plan to deal with the banking crisis and asked for the public's support, concluding, "Together we cannot fail." National Museum of American History
Albert Einstein, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and creator of the theory of relativity, radically revised our concepts of space, time, and matter. After doctors advised him to give up smoking, Einstein continued to chew on this briar pipe out of habit and, perhaps, for inspiration. National Museum of American History
Modern-jazz virtuoso Dizzy Gillespie played this customized King "Silver Flair" trumpet from 1972 to 1985. He adopted the signature angled design in 1954, after someone accidentally bent his horn and he discovered he liked the sound that resulted. National Museum of American History
On February 1, 1960, four African American college students protesting segregation entered a Woolworth's drugstore in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat down at this "whites-only" lunch counter, and politely asked to be served. When their request was denied, the students refused to leave. National Museum of American History
Samuel Colt patented the modern form of the revolver in 1836 and continued to make improvements in later years. The pistol eventually won popular acclaim on the frontier and inspired a popular 19th-century saying: "God made all Men, Samuel Colt made them equal." National Museum of American History
In June 1776, Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on this mahogany writing box of his own design. National Museum of American History
President Lincoln wore this top hat to Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865, the night he was assassinated by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. National Museum of American History
The creation and alter ego of master puppeteer Jim Henson, Kermit the Frog is an American icon, recognized worldwide as the television star of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. National Museum of American History
Prizefighter Muhammad Ali, "The Greatest," wore these Everlast gloves while defending the second of his three world heavyweight championships. National Museum of American History
Thomas Edison's light bulb Thomas Edison used this carbon-filament bulb in the first public demonstration of his most famous invention, the first practical electric incandescent lamp, which took place at his Menlo Park, New Jer

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.

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.

Changes in the environment cause dimensional changes in objects which in turn can lead to damage - controlling humidity and temperature for storage and display is essential for long term stability of the collections. All materials used for storage must be stable for decades, if not longer, and not adversely affect the artifacts. Exhibition designers in concert with conservators analyze the materials used for exhibit cases to ensure that they do not have detrimental effects on the objects. Light can also cause damage so it must be carefully controlled.

Conservation involves examination, scientific analysis, and research to determine the original structure, materials and extent of loss of the artifacts. Conservation also encompasses the structural and chemical treatment to stabilize the object and delay any future deterioration. NMAH has four conservation laboratories dedicated to the preservation of our collections.

Steps taken to display the Jefferson bible illustrate some of our preservation work. The light levels are kept low and the page to which it is displayed is changed every three months to prevent fading of the printing or discoloration of the paper. The binding is very brittle so a special cradle supports the bible. Aside from protecting the Bible from dimensional changes, temperature and humidity are kept at a specified level in order to keep the glue in the binding from desiccating if the humidity is too low or from mold growing if the humidity is too high.

Preservation is a very complicated and involved process. Protecting and caring for the national collections is a major focus of the National Museum of American History.

How did Smithsonian get these things? Were they purchased or donated?

The Smithsonian acquires almost all of its collections as gifts. Donors understand that placing much loved and often valuable artifacts in the national collections means that they will be accessible to a broad public and cared for and preserved for perpetuity.

While most donations have come from the owners themselves, some of the National Museum of American History's most prized objects have been “inherited” from other institutions, such as the desk on which Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. It was given by Jefferson to his favorite granddaughter, Eleanora Wayles Randolph Coolidge, and her husband, Joseph Coolidge Jr., as a wedding present in 1825. For over 50 years the desk was much revered by the family and occasionally exhibited in Boston. Upon the death of Joseph in 1879 (Ellen had died in 1876), the children presented the desk to President Rutherford Hayes as a gift to the country. For more than 40 years it was displayed at the Department of State as an icon of American democracy. In 1921 Secretary of State Charles Hughes transferred the desk to the Smithsonian, recognizing that the museum could better preserve and display this treasure.

A full list of individuals and organizations who donated artifacts featured in the Treasures exhibition is provided on the Muhammad Ali donated his boxing gloves, and Alexander Graham Bell donated his telephone, for example – as well as ordinary Americans who generously chose to share their treasures with the nation.

When the museum reopens, can we still see everything in the exhibit?

When the museum reopens in 2008 many of the artifacts in the Treasures of American History exhibition will go back on display in exhibitions like Price of Freedom and The American Presidency. However some of the objects will go back into storage.

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.

The reason that this chapter of American history was omitted was the demands of space constraints and more importantly the question of what the historical significance of September 11 really means. The terrorist attacks that resulted in the destruction of the World Trade towers, a portion of the Pentagon, and four jetliners were a despicable. Yet as egregious as they were the long lasting effect is not clear. Is this an opening chapter in a world war? Would the acts of September 11 be followed by similar attacks? Was September 11 justification for the invasion of sovereign nations? None of the answers is clear. The Smithsonian is committed to a balanced and fair representation of history yet how to characterize September 11 is difficult. In 20 years the topic will probably be well researched and considered by dispassionate historians but today September 11 is still part of current events — a topic that we have all lived through and with which we are personally invested.

How do you research an item? For example, how do you know the light bulb you have is Thomas Edison's from his first public demonstration.

Authenticity is always a major issue when collecting artifacts. Knowing whether something is truly what it is alleged to be is a major challenge for curators. Of course physical examination can be very revealing. Is an object technically what it appears to be? With the New Year's Eve 1879 Edison demonstration bulb the object appears to be technical correct. Of course a fake is always possible. The accession records however document the provenance explaining exactly how the donor Frank A. Wardlaw, Jr. and his father Frank A. Wardlaw of New York, New York donated the bulb in 1933. The elder Wardlaw had worked for Edison and at the time of the donation and was the secretary of the Edison Pioneers.

What new acquisitions have you gotten since the exhibit started?

Even while closed for renovation the National Museum of American History continues to add objects to the national collections. A few of the recent acquisitions are featured in the Treasures of American History New Acquisition case. Items displayed so far include artifacts documenting Hurricane Katrina, a group of objects donated by Sylvester Stallone from the early Rocky motion pictures, a typewriter and Dictaphone from civil rights lawyer Charles Houston, medical scrubs from pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and an artificial heart from Robert Jarvick.

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