Nation of things
collection started as the National Cabinet of Curiosities, only
to be renamed the U.S. National Museum in 1876. In 1957 that museum
was split into two parts: the Museum of Natural History and the
Museum of History and Technology. In 1980 the latter received
a new name: the National Museum of American History. And it's
still sometimes known as the nation's attic, a nickname that suggests
the hodge-podge of things collected therein.
September marked the publication of a fresh look at the nation's
attic: Legacies: Collecting America's History at the Smithsonian.
Published by the Smithsonian Institution Press and written by
Steven Lubar, AM'77, PhD'83, and Kathleen M. Kendrick, the book
is based on research that Lubar and Kendrick have done in the
course of preparing for a forthcoming exhibition at the National
Museum of American History, where Lubar is curator of the history
of technology division.
exhibition and book revolve around a central point: "History
has a history. People's understanding of the past-and the stories
and objects they value from it-are influenced by the needs, values,
and interests of the present and therefore change over time."
Focusing on approximately 250 of the 3.2 million artifacts contained
in the Smithsonian at the start of the millennium, Lubar and Kendrick
hope to determine both "when they were collected and why"-including
why specific things are collected at specific times.
history museum, the authors suggest, can be imagined variously
"as a treasure house, a shrine to the famous, a palace of
progress, and a mirror of America." They start with the treasure-house
concept and the questions raised by such a construct-including
some that quickly lead to the individual collector: "Value
is, after all, in the eye of the beholder, and the treasures we
Americans have placed in the National Museum reveal a great deal
about who we are, as individuals and a nation."
and Kendrick subdivide the concept of treasure into two categories:
relics (things that are saved because of the stories they tell,
whether of individual or national importance) and personal treasures
(mementos, souvenirs, heirlooms, and collections). Collections
differ from the other forms of personal treasure by virtue of
being "not necessarily a reminder of an individual or family
past but a form of self-expression." The explanation for
an individual's collecting impulse may be psychoanalytic, capitalistic,
aesthetic, historical, or simply the love of the hunt-all reasons
that are good enough.
enough for an individual, that is, but not necessarily for a museum.
While a young girl's button collection (circa 1935) and an automobile
enthusiast's collection of radiator emblems (1910-1940) were both
donated to-and accepted by-the Smithsonian, not every personal
collection can make the cut. "Although curators are often
delighted to acquire private collections," the authors write,
"museums and individual collectors collect for very different
reasons. History museums collect to preserve, understand, and
interpret the past."
to a national collection, buttons become more than buttons, radiator
emblems more than radiator emblems, an object more than an object.
Taken together the objects in a history museum tell stories that
are more than the things themselves, argue Lubar and Kendrick.
"The objects people give to the museum become part of a bigger
story, the nation's story." - M.R.Y.