“Best of the Decade” with the American History Museum’s Harry Rubenstein

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As a new decade approaches, we here at ATM thought it a good time to reflect on the last—asking Smithsonian curators to weigh in on their favorite exhibits and acquisitions since 2000.

Harry Rubenstein started his Smithsonian career in 1980, as an intern in the National Museum of American History's community life department, and has since climbed the ladder to become the chair of the museum's Division of Politics and Reform. With masters degrees in both American History, from the University of New Mexico, and Museum Studies, from George Washington University, his expertise is in American political history and labor history.

What were you working on at the turn of the last decade?

I was working on two exhibits at the time. I was finishing up an exhibit I did with Peter Liebhold on sweatshops and starting up an exhibit with Lonnie Bunch and Spencer Crew on the American presidency.

What has been your favorite exhibit from the past ten years? Why?

I’ve done a lot of exhibits over the past ten years and on one level or another they are all favorites. Working on the Separate is Not Equal: Brown v. Board of Education exhibit was one of those great projects where you really get to meet a variety of people who have changed American life and society. When you work on very contemporary topics like that you really have this opportunity to meet people, like Robert Carter, who helped draft the arguments, or the people who were students in the cases. But the last exhibit that I did, Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life, was another great opportunity to just delve into a topic and really get to know and learn something that you didn’t learn before.

What have been your favorite additions to the collection since 2000?

There is something very personal when somebody can make a donation of something that has great meaning to him or her. Vincent Batista, who played drums at Kennedy’s funeral, came in one day with his drumsticks. You really get a sense of the privilege of being able to accept something like that. We have a great collection from Frank Kameny, who is one of the pioneers of the gay rights movement. He gave us some protest signs from the mid-1960s, which are some of the first protest signs from the movement. There is William Rehnquist’s robe that he gave us, as chief justice, with the stripes on it. There was something very moving about collecting the 2005 Iraqi campaign material that was done in the United States. When they had their first election, they had polling stations around the country. We collected some of that material. The context of it all, of watching them vote and coming in as family groups—you got a sense of the meaning of democracy in an emerging time period. And then, finally, going to the presidential campaigns with Larry Bird and being in the stadium during Obama’s acceptance speech in Denver with that crowd—the opportunity of being at moments in history for the Smithsonian and collecting that material is one of the great privileges of the job.

What anniversaries, events and people are you looking forward to celebrating or commemorating with an exhibit in the coming decade?

There are two projects that I am currently paying the most attention to. One is an exhibit on American democracy that will be done with the entire division of politics and reform, looking at the meaning of democracy in American history. It seems a very overwhelming topic, but nonetheless the challenge of it is really exciting. We are also getting ready to commemorate and celebrate the March on Washington of the 1960s. Again, it will be a rare opportunity to work with those people who are still around and were involved with the march and all of the events surrounding it. Both are to happen around 2013.

Stay tuned for more interviews in the coming weeks.

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