The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects - A weighty read (in more then one way) but worth it

The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects - Richard Kurin

This book was written for me. Seriously, all my life I seemed to be the only person I knew who not only wanted to know the provenance of each object I saw but also the story behind the acquisition and the thoughts of the curators to boot. All this the book has and more.

One of my fears going in was that I would agree with the choices of the author and dislike some of the objects chosen. And while many objects I personally would have loved to have seen were not included, the ones used were good examples that told as much about the U.S. in as small amount as possible. With that much ground to cover, the objects had to pull double and even triple duty. Each object not only had to fit into American history, but a specific

time period, build on previous objects, come from a variety of museums (National History, National Gallery of Art, American Indian Museum, National Zoo, etc.), and also fit into an overreaching idea (Digital Age, Pop Culture, Manifest Destiny, A House Divided, Before Columbus, etc.). All of this was balanced well and thoughtfully handled. Neither does the author shy away from painful moments, including such objects as a KKK robe, a piece of the AIDS quilt, and more.


But there were plenty of amazing objects as well: The Star Spangled Banner, Neil Armstrong's Space Suit, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing the Giant Pandas, a bottle of the Polio vaccine, Helen Keller's watch, Julia Child's Kitchen (the 2 page picture is incredible), and R2D2 & C3PO. Each piece got its say, with concise paragraphs that were easy to read and yet full of interesting information. You learn a lot without feeling as if you are.


There are downsides. This is not a book to be read in one go: there is simply too much information and a range of ideas, objects, and connections to take in. Likewise, this is simply an extremely heavy book. It is rather difficult to read at almost any comfortable position (believe me, I tried), though placing it one the coffee table while reading helped. Also, if you want to read this through, I don't recommend checking it out of the library - I had to run through all two possible renewals because it was so long and I couldn't read it constantly. Furthermore, the price makes me think twice even after knowing I want to read this again.


This is a book for multiple readers. If you know little to nothing about America History, this gives you a good starting position. If you've read a great deal of American History, you'll learn more about old friends and see objects you've never seen before. And if you are an historian, you will get a glimpse of the mindset of a museum curator/archivist - as one of my professor's described it, "dragon's guarding their gold." This wars with the understanding that the object needs to be seen and used in an exhibit to serve the purpose for preservation in the first place.


I highly recommend giving this book a shot, though the price tag makes me cringe. I will say I believe it's worth the money; however, you might want to borrow it from your library and glance through it to make sure it works for you. It is a fun and fascinating way to learn about the USA's history and it's on my short list to buy. I plan to return to this book often.