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The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects

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The Smithsonian Institution is America's largest, most important, and most beloved repository for the objects that define our common heritage. Now Under Secretary for Art, History, and Culture Richard Kurin, aided by a team of top Smithsonian curators and scholars, has assembled a literary exhibition of 101 objects from across the Smithsonian's museums that together offer a marvelous new perspective on the history of the United States.

Ranging from the earliest years of the ...

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The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects

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The Smithsonian Institution is America's largest, most important, and most beloved repository for the objects that define our common heritage. Now Under Secretary for Art, History, and Culture Richard Kurin, aided by a team of top Smithsonian curators and scholars, has assembled a literary exhibition of 101 objects from across the Smithsonian's museums that together offer a marvelous new perspective on the history of the United States.

Ranging from the earliest years of the pre-Columbian continent to the digital age, and from the American Revolution to Vietnam, each entry pairs the fascinating history surrounding each object with the story of its creation or discovery and the place it has come to occupy in our national memory. Kurin sheds remarkable new light on objects we think we know well, from Lincoln's hat to Dorothy's ruby slippers and Julia Child's kitchen, including the often astonishing tales of how each made its way into the collections of the Smithsonian. Other objects will be eye-opening new discoveries for many, but no less evocative of the most poignant and important moments of the American experience. Some objects, such as Harriet Tubman's hymnal, Sitting Bull's ledger, Cesar Chavez's union jacket, and the Enola Gay bomber, tell difficult stories from the nation's history, and inspire controversies when exhibited at the Smithsonian. Others, from George Washington's sword to the space shuttle Discovery, celebrate the richness and vitality of the American spirit. In Kurin's hands, each object comes to vivid life, providing a tactile connection to American history.

Beautifully designed and illustrated with color photographs throughout, The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects is a rich and fascinating journey through America's collective memory, and a beautiful object in its own right.

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  • History of America in 101 Objects - The Hope Diamond
    History of America in 101 Objects - The Hope Diamond  

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Richard Kurin had a crystal-clear assignment: From the Smithsonian museums collections of 137,000,000 items, select 101 that would optimally communicate a radiant sense of American history. The impressively title Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture did the nation proud with a rich, sometimes surprising array of choices. When you realize that the Smithsonian Institute houses artifacts from the 505 million-year-old Burgess Shale fossils to the outward looking Giant Magellan Telescope, you gain some sense of the compass of this project. Under Kurin's custodianship, this project became much more than a collection of curios; with its fascinating descriptions, annotations, and photographs, The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects has the potential to give every family member a hands-on sense of our shared heritage.

Publishers Weekly
As Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture for the Smithsonian Institution, Kurin (Hope Diamond) has intimate knowledge of the organization’s inventory of over 137 million items (that doesn’t include millions and millions of books, photos, documents, recordings, etc.). That blessing had the potential to turn into a curse when he was challenged to select a mere 101 objects that would tell the history of the United States. But he’s done a masterful job. Yes, there are obvious inclusions, like the Declaration of Independence, Neil Armstrong’s space suit, Dorothy’s red ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, and the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk Flyer, but even these well-known items have surprising and significant backstories—the Wright Brothers, for example, contacted the Smithsonian for information on research on flying machines prior to their epic flight. (The Smithsonian happily obliged.) Unexpected selections—like vials of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, and an Emancipation Proclamation pamphlet that freed slaves carried with them—make the book even more engrossing, and, as in the case of the last item, can make for some emotional reading. Kurin does a terrific job of expanding upon the story of each object, whether it’s a pair of slave shackles or a damaged door from one of the New York City fire trucks that responded to 9/11. This humanistic approach to storytelling (he even includes digressions on things that didn’t make it in, like the ubiquitous stuffed animal named after the first President Roosevelt: the teddy bear) makes for immersive, addictive reading. Photos and illus. throughout. (Oct. 29)
Library Journal
We all hold on to objects that are laden with our memories. Kurin (under secretary, history, art, & culture, Smithsonian Inst.; Hope Diamond: The Legendary History of a Cursed Gem) presents a chronological selection of Smithsonian holdings that represent the nation's memory, organizing materials according to the themes of U.S. history, from "Before Columbus" to "New Millennium." A guide like this is all the more useful since such a small percentage of the Smithsonian's holdings can ever be on exhibit. The book is much more descriptive than analytical, as Kurin sets each object, beautifully photographed, in its historical and institutional context. The objects cover a wide spectrum: here are all four of Katharine Hepburn's Oscars, Helen Keller's tactile watch, one of only three surviving Mormon moonstones from the Nauvoo Temple, Neil Armstrong's space suit—and the entire Carnegie mansion, now housing the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. VERDICT Written for nonspecialists, albeit insatiably curious ones, this volume will be welcomed by museum visitors, docents, and general history and biography buffs, much like Harold Holzer's The Civil War in 50 Objects and Neil MacGregor's A History of the World in 100 Objects, using collections at the New-York Historical Society and the British Museum, respectively. [See Prepub Alert, 5/13/13.]—Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Lib. of Congress, Washington, DC
Kirkus Reviews
An overstuffed exploration of American history as related through material artifacts, from Meriwether Lewis' compass to relics of the Space Age. The "history of X in Y objects" trope, launched by Neil MacGregor's History of the World in 100 Objects a few years ago, is already in danger of becoming a cliché. Indisputably, though, if you wanted to learn about American history through material holdings, the Smithsonian would be the place to start and end, just as the British Museum served as the trove of first and last resort for MacGregor. Smithsonian Undersecretary Kurin's (Madcap May: Mistress of Myth, Men, and Hope, 2012, etc.) tales are abundant, so much so that it seems almost a shame to stop at a mere 101 items, fat though this book is. For instance, who knew that the original Stars and Stripes, the flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, was packed off to shelter in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia during World War II because Franklin Roosevelt "feared Germany might bomb the National Mall"? Beginning 500 million years ago, Kurin celebrates the Burgess Shale fossils, which gave Stephen Jay Gould material evidence for his evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium; then writes of the bald eagle, "adopted as a national symbol…for its connotations of indomitable force"; and then turns to Clovis points, the tools that early Indian hunters used to bring down mammoths, bison and perhaps even an eagle or two. Rocketing through hundreds of years by way of a Colt revolver, the lyrics to "This Land Is Your Land" and Sitting Bull's sketchbook (again, who knew?), Kurin closes with some of the tools of our time, from Chuck Berry's guitar to the first Apple computer and on to galaxies far beyond our own. A well-conceived and well-illustrated pleasure to read, combining narrative history and keepsake volume.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594205293
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 10/29/2013
  • Pages: 784
  • Sales rank: 20,334
  • Product dimensions: 7.50 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 2.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Kurin

Richard Kurin serves as the Smithsonian Institution's Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture, with responsibility for most of its museums and many of its educational programs. He is an anthropologist and cultural historian, a former Fulbright fellow with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He is the author of several books, including Hope Diamond: The Legendary History of a Cursed Gem, and his scholarship and museological work have been recognized by the International Council of Museums, UNESCO, and Harvard's Peabody Museum. Awarded the Smithsonian Secretary's Gold Medal for Exceptional Service, he represents the Smithsonian on the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the White House Historical Association, and numerous other boards.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 3, 2014

    Kurin uses 101 artifacts from the Smithsonian's collections to v

    Kurin uses 101 artifacts from the Smithsonian's collections to vividly illustrate American culture.  Each article is about an artifact--but it's about so much more than that. He carefully wends together inventions like the airplane and the light bulb with Abe Lincoln's hat, Ben Franklin's staff, and even the Stars & Strips of Fort McHenry in a tapestry of enlightened story-telling.

    Along with information about each artifact, Kurin describes the process by which it came to reside in the nation's museum. Artifacts from a wide range of museums--including the Museum of African-American History and the Native American Museum are represented.

    In my English 11 classes, I used an obscure article about King Kamehameha's feathered cape in a unit with my students, and the quality of research and the quality of writing held up to a very in-depth study.

    Kurin closes the book with a reflection on artifacts that he didn't get to fit into his top 101. He comes across as a thorough researcher and devoted curator for my country's treasures. 

    As an American I feel grateful to have people like Kurin in charge of my country's historic artifacts. As a reader, I am grateful for this intelligent, inspiring book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2013

    Great compilation of american history greats

    I love history and love this book. It is so varied covering so many topics and thousands of years of history. Each object story also contains detailed color photos, helping really bring the item to light.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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