The other day I visited Massachusetts, Florida, Germany, St. Louis, and Virginia all in one day. And no, I wasn’t on the Concorde (although you can see a dining set from it too); I was at the Smithsonian Castle’s Souvenir Nation exhibit. Now these aren’t the souvenirs you’d normally think of; no magnets, shot glasses or Green Bay Packer Cheese Heads. These are real one-of- a-kind keepsakes; a chunk of George Washington’s coffin, the infamous “hanging chads” from the 2000 Presidential Election, Napoleon’s napkin, and a piece of the actual Plymouth Rock. The items on display range in age from before our country was born to within our lifetime. There are items from almost all of the continents but most of these are very uniquely American.
Gift of Robert A. Rosenberg, 2001-04
We as individuals collect souvenirs from places we’ve visited in order to remember things about those places. The same is true of the nation’s souvenirs; they help all of us remember the person, place and time of that object. But most importantly, it makes us ask ourselves why. Why is this item so important that it warranted display over all the other items the Smithsonian has? That “why” question along with the basic details of the souvenir complete the picture of the souvenir’s importance to American history.
One aspect of the exhibit I really enjoyed was how it made me think about the development of the country. Part of the exhibit was a group of photographs taken from the top of the Smithsonian Castle over the years 1863-2012. To keep the integrity of this idea they took every picture from the exact same angle, showing us how DC has changed in 150 years. What started out as fields and farmland for as far as the eye could see quickly grew into a thriving capital city and the transformation is astonishing.
The “souvenirs” on display range from clothing to furniture to items used by historical individuals and even presidential hair! All in all, what makes this entire exhibit a cool experience is that, in some way, every item is uniquely American.