Federal agencies are very creative in communicating their mission and value to Congress, and some of these organizations seem to have a bit of an unfair advantage. The situation reminds me of how much I enjoy doing demonstrations in my chemistry classes and the jealousy of my mathematician friends since they have not figured out how to incorporate explosions into their daily lessons. Yesterday, the Smithsonian Museum of American History did their own version of my demonstrations and they brought a road show to Capitol Hill.
With the vast treasure trove of the Smithsonian collections, what do you bring to inform and impress Congressional staffers? The answer was articles to excite, items to touch the heartstrings, but overall an assembly of objects to tell a story. They set up shop in the lobby of the Rayburn House Office Building with tables around the perimeter. Each department tried to select objects that would demonstrate the breadth of the collections as well as connect with each other in some way.
The musical instrument table featured two guitars. One was a Fender played by Eddie van Halen, which I had specifically come to see because I thought my Beloved Husband would want me to. The second was made from downed wood from the former estate of Andrew Jackson, and the Gibson guitar, named “Old Hickory,” also tells the highlights of the President’s life. (If Andrew Jackson was a closet guitar player, I don’t know, but I forgot to ask the question at the time.)
On the sports table, the focus was baseball. The objects included Roberto Clemente’s batting helmet, a photograph of Lou Gehrig on the day of his last game, a baseball signed by Babe Ruth, and a baseball signed by players of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. I suspect that baseball fans can fill in their own stories for each of these objects, as I did.
The upcoming exhibit in the museum on “Roots and Routes” focuses on migration and immigration. To highlight that exhibit, as well as the immigration legislation currently being considered, there were items that represented the cultures that people brought with them as well as their travels to America. In this picture is the satchel brought by a woman who survived the Nazi concentration camps and was eventually able to join her daughter in New York. Next to the suitcase is an exquisite piece of needlework typical of those done by women in the refugee camps of Laos to make money for food.
I thought the table on Bakelite was particularly well chosen. The book is one of Mr. Bakelund’s diaries, and the other items are all made with the Bakelite hard plastic that he invented. The curator said he especially liked the radio because of its multiple stories. When the radio was a new technology, there was a question of what a radio should look like. Many of the early radios are designed like theaters, and when I think about how people would gather round the radio for their evening entertainment, the design seems quite appropriate. Nearby was the microphone used by FDR during his fireside chats.
There was also a Civil War theme to some of the displays. In some of my reading, I had encountered hard tack, which was apparently about five parts flour to one part water and was tough enough to break a tooth on. I loved that one enterprising soul had found a more palatable use for his helping as a picture frame. The belt buckles are also from the Civil War, and on the next table was the West Point cadet uniform of Robert E. Lee. Apparently wool stands up quite well over time as long as it is not exposed to light or insects. The dyes fade a little, but that was less of an issue with the gray coat. I had known that silk, on the other hand, dries out and shatters and is extremely difficult to preserve.
One table was obviously catering to pop culture and had a big wow factor. It was big fun to see Indiana Jones’ hat and whip from the movies, and the lunch box also belonged to Indy. I could tell because it had his picture on it.
I saved my favorite for last. I was at the perfect age when Sesame Street first aired in 1969, and I watched the program for years. For some reason being in the presence of the real Oscar the Grouch puppet gave me an overwhelming connection that little girl that I was. Of all the objects, it was hardest not to reach out to stroke Oscar’s fur and physically touch this character who taught and entertained me so many afternoons.
Smithsonian curators, you did your job well.