Smithsonian Scholars Pick Their Favorite Books of 2019

Reading proved a bedrock in a year that saw a new Smithsonian secretary and celebrations of dinosaurs, Apollo 11 and women’s history

(Illustration by Shaylyn Esposito)

This year, the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s founding director Lonnie Bunch was tapped to become the Smithsonian’s 14th Secretary. In his new role Secretary Bunch promises to pursue a Smithsonian where the nation can look “for guidance, for information and for clarity.”

At the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, historians offered that kind of clarity to the complex racial undertones in the historic quest for universal suffrage. The Portrait Gallery also announced the winners of the triennial Outwin Portrait Competition, yielding works that touched on LBGTQ rights and activism, the Black Lives Matter movement and gun violence.

Bringing clarity and guidance, the Smithsonian in 2019 dispersed a plethora of scholarship. At the National Museum of American History, curators took a deep dive into the history of the transcontinental railroad for its 150th anniversary. There, public historians also considered the role of the housewife across time and the confluence of our nation’s immigration policies on entrepreneurs in the food, wine and craft beer industries.

While shutting down enormous galleries for a major, seven-year renovation, the National Air and Space Museum launched a spectacular summer celebration in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission. Thousands of summer audiences witnessed an extraordinary video projection of the original rocket launch on the side of the Washington Monument.

Some of the most fearsome and iconic dinosaurs like T-rex, Triceratops, Camarasaurus, Allosaurus and Diplodocus came roaring back to life in the newly re-opened “Fossil Hall: Deep Time” at the National Museum of Natural History, highly acclaimed for its epic narration of the past 3.7 billion years of life on Earth, while addressing what human-caused climate change means for the future.

The Smithsonian’s multiple art museums paid homage to artists from the renowned James McNeill Whistler to Native artists like Jeffrey Veregge, T.C. Cannon and Jeffrey Gibson along with other contemporary artists Lee Ufan, Tiffany Chung, Rirkrit Tiravanija, David Levinthal, Patience Torlowei, Ginny Ruffner, Yun Suknam, Alicja Kwade and Pat Steir.

Books celebrating all of these ventures came out in droves from Secretary Bunch’s A Fool’s Errand, to Apollo’s Legacy from the Air and Space Museum’s scholar Roger G. Launius. Dinosaur curator Matthew T. Carrano and Kirk R. Johnson, the director of the National Museum of Natural History offered a beautiful collection of the paleoart crafted by the artist Jay Matternes. And the Portrait Gallery's Kate Clarke Lemay edited Votes for Women: A Portrait of Resistance.

But even as scholars around the Institution published their own works, others voraciously read a wildly diverse range of titles—books that helped them to study the paradigms of archiving a country that struggles with its complicated past and its current moment.

Here are the titles they recommend:

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About Beth Py-Lieberman
Beth Py-Lieberman

Beth Py-Lieberman is the museums editor, covering exhibitions, events and happenings at the Smithsonian Institution. She has been a member of the Smithsonian team for more than two decades.

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