WASHINGTON, D.C. — Americans tend to be great collectors — of everything under the sun — but particularly of objects that relate to historical past. Case in point is a fascinating exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s Castle, “Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes and Curios,” on view through 2014. Organized by National Museum of American History (NMAH) curator William L. Bird Jr, it comprises a selection of more than 50 small, personal objects from NMAH’s permanent collection that Americans have created, acquired and preserved as historical mementoes from the Revolutionary War era to the present day.
For a long time in the United States, the way to preserve the historical past was through art — paintings, sculptures, monuments, medals and coins representing heroic figures and events. The souvenir-relic, like ones featured in this exhibition, originated with the same objective. Many were identifiable by notes attached to the object, thus easing the tracking of its provenance. “The souvenir’s most memorable qualities are derived from a connection with an actual person, place or event — in short, it is an association object,” says Bird.
The Twentieth Century saw a growing appreciation for the value of such relics, and museums like the National Museum of American History started to collect them as links to America’s past and its history.
“The artifacts on display…may be nondescript, but these small tokens connect an individual to a place and a specific memory,” observes Bird. “Each of these objects has a dynamic story behind it. As culture becomes increasingly ephemeral, displays like ‘Souvenir Nation’ are the place to connect with objects representing the ways that Americans have sought to save the historical past,” says Bird.
Tourism has contributed to, and sometimes precipitated, saving items from America’s past. By the mid-Nineteenth Century, Plymouth Rock, an icon of the nation’s earliest days, was placed under a protective enclosure. Prior to that, a hammer had been kept on hand for souvenir-seeking visitors who had forgotten to bring a chipping tool.
The desecration of historic objects, particularly in the nation’s capital, was rampant for a time, with visitors chipping away at the speaker’s desk in the House of Representatives, cutting fabric samples from White House curtains and lopping off bits of marble monuments. “The development of a mass market for manufactured souvenirs was welcomed as an alternative to the pillaging of historic sites,” says Bird. “It was said,” he adds, “that the rate of vandalism…declined in inverse proportion to the volume of souvenir sales.”
Of interest to many will be a fragment of stone from the dungeon of Joan of Arc in Rouen, France. Around World War I, as part of plans to erect a statue in her honor on New York City’s Riverside Drive, organizers obtained 229 blocks of limestone weighing 18 tons from the castle, which was being demolished to make room for a modern building. They were used to form decorative elements of the statue’s pedestal, enhancing the powerful figure of an armor-clad Joan astride a horse, her right hand raised high with a sword as designed by sculptor Anna Hyatt (later Huntington). It was the first equestrian statue in the United States designed by a woman.
Also displayed is a small metal cube from the Bastille, the fearsome French government prison in Paris. After it was stormed and demolished in 1789, fragments were widely distributed and a version made its way to NMAH. There is also a section of oak beam from London’s Newgate Prison, made infamous in Charles Dickens’ novels. The city jail since 1188, it was demolished around 1903, and a chunk from the prison’s chapel was donated to the Smithsonian by a London police constable.
Also notable is a piece from the marble cornerstone of the Washington Monument with the monument’s image painted by an unknown artist. The 24,500-pound cornerstone, started in 1848, was later covered by an expansive new foundation for the monument that was not completed until 1888. This is a piece that broke off during the latter process.
More recently, a concrete fragment from the Berlin Wall, which was famously destroyed in 1989, has entered the collection. Those chipping away at the iconic symbol of the Iron Curtain produced portions in memorial-sized chunks, and a large number of smaller fragments that made their way all over the world. This particular fragment, splotched with paint, was acquired by NMAH in 2011.
Other pieces of interest include a sliver of wood from the office where future president Andrew Jackson practiced law in Salisbury, N.C., 1784–1786, and a piece of fence rail split by young Abraham Lincoln in Illinois around 1830; other chunks were used to promote the future president as a frontier rail-splitter.
Also on view is a 6-inch version of the Statue of Liberty, which was sold in great numbers to finance construction of a pedestal for Frederic-August Batholdi’s full-size statue in New York Harbor.
Mementoes associated with America’s revered first president George Washington and his beloved estate, Mount Vernon, are well represented, some in the form of souvenirs sold there as an alternative to visitors taking pieces from the grounds. On view is old ivy from Mount Vernon; a buckeye nut from the estate with a compass embedded in it and a ring for wearing as a charm; an illustrated souvenir plaque crafted out of wood from trees on the grounds and a piece of Washington’s mahogany coffin from its gravesite on a hillside overlooking the Potomac River.
By early in the Nineteenth Century souvenir artifacts and keepsakes had become an integral part of important civic celebrations, like opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, which linked the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean via the Hudson River. The Seneca Chief, the first vessel to travel the length of the canal to New York City, was stocked with “curious woods” from western New York State. In New York City, the wood was fashioned into souvenir metal boxes by leading artisans, including cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe.
The exhibition recalls the many souvenir items — commemorative ceramics, household wares and silk ribbons — created as part of the public outpouring of affection when the Marquis de Lafayette, Revolutionary hero and friend of George Washington, made a triumphal tour of the United States, 1824–1825. Popular items were ladies’ gloves bearing a small portrait of the French nobleman, which troubled him when he was obliged to kiss the hand of a lady wearing a glove with his likeness.
The aggressive effort by women around 1917 to press for the right to vote is immortalized in an expressive “Jailed for Freedom” metal pin, designed by suffragist leader Alice Paul while she was in jail for picketing the White House. The female right-to-vote Nineteenth Amendment was ratified by Congress in 1920.
A nurse who looked after the children of President and Mrs Grover Cleveland in the White House is indirectly responsible for a classic miniature Wedgwood creamer on view. In the 1890s, small toy and tea sets were given to children of British royalty and the Cleveland offspring. When the latter left the White House, the creamer, with a broken handle, was given to their nurse as a memento.
Recalling John F. Kennedy’s World War II boat, PT-109, sunk in the Pacific followed by a dramatic rescue, was a bronze tie clip used in subsequent political campaigns. It became a “symbol of virility, perseverance and courageous derring-do,” says curator Bird.
Specialized Nineteenth Century collectibles that no longer seem in vogue, locks of hair, are represented in the exhibition by a display of “Hair of Persons of Distinction,” which includes a number of luminaries, and “Hair of the Presidents,” which covers locks from Washington to Pierce. Starting in 1850, they were collected by John Varden, who worked for several federal government agencies, and eventually turned them over to the Smithsonian.
Among the somewhat offbeat relics that have become historical artifacts is a well-worn, cast iron, fish-shaped can opener that Teddy Roosevelt took on his famous African safari in 1910. In return for financial and staffing help from the Smithsonian, the former president brought back to the institution anthropological material, geological specimens and marine invertebrates, as well as skinned and preserved mammals and reptiles. Items “not of ethnological significance” turned over to the Smithsonian included this rudimentary but essential tool.
The most recent object in the show is a magnifying glass used by Judge Robert A. Rosenberg and “authentic chads” from paper punch-card ballots that were examined in the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore. It is a visual reminder of an almost surreal moment in American political history.
While this intriguing exhibition only scratches the surface of the NMAH’s collection, it suggests how effectively objects from the Smithsonian, sometimes dubbed the “Nation’s Attic,” can illuminate its past history.
With its growing reputation and revelatory exhibitions, the Smithsonian in general and NMAH in particular must pick and choose among a vast variety of items available through donation or purchase. In his companion book, Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes, and Curios from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Bird surveys the history of the museum and its collecting practices. He emphasizes the difficulty of separating trivial miscellany from relics that shed light on events and the culture of America’s past. Today, he observes, divisions within the NMAH collect “objects related to the White House, women’s history, reform movements and presidential campaigns, as well as varied items that seem worthy of preservation but do not fit into convenient categories.
“The challenge remains,” he says, “to identify artifacts with which definite historical statements may be made. Deciding what to collect is a matter of curatorial taste and discretion, within the practical considerations of available space.” He points out that the museum continues to collect “relics,” now called “historical artifacts or association pieces.” It keeps an eye open for “things — and pieces of things — that sum up an event or era,” citing the fragment of the Berlin Wall, and the magnifying glass and chads involved in Florida’s 2000 presidential election ballot recount.
Bird concludes his interesting review of collecting practices by suggesting that what is “surprising is the continuity with the past that can be read in the smallest and most personal of things, in which the real triumph is the survival of the thing itself.” The admirable “Souvenir Nation” exhibition hints at the seemingly unlimited potential of NMAH to continue linking present-day viewers with America’s historical past.
The companion 176-page book, fully illustrated with an essay by Bird and commentary on more than 100 objects, is published by the NMAH in association with Princeton Architectural Press. It sells for $24.95, hardcover.
The Smithsonian Castle is on the National Mall at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. For information, www.si.edu or 202-633-1000.