Podcast Episode 64: American History Museum – Americana, Presidential Assassinations, and First Ladies

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The American History Museum is a no-brainer visit for even the casual history fan. It’s free, good for kids, and it would take a couple of days to see everything.

Jenn got to visit and record some short videos…but even for this historian, she had to put the camera down and just enjoy it. She tells us about the classic Americana you can see and many other exhibits worth making the trip for.

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Ep 64 American history museum

Jenn: So you can imagine like that’s why they’re trying to preserve this. So you can go in the room, you can see it. It is, it is really neat to see. And walking in there, they’ll give you the history of it and then walking out, they give you the history of the preservation of it. So that’s probably the biggest.

Artifact, but I, I think there’s one that’s right up there with it. What was that?

Scott: Welcome to Talk with History. I’m your host Scott, here with my wife and historian Jim. Hello. On this podcast, we give you insights to our history inspired world travels YouTube channel journey, and examine history through deeper conversations with the curious, the explorers, and the history lovers out there.

[00:00:50] American History Museum

Scott: Now tonight we are gonna talk about a complex of 21 museums. Established with funds from James Smithson lived from 1765 into 1829, a British scientist who left his estate to the United States to found an establishment for the increase in diffusion of knowledge. The specific museum we’re gonna talk about today is, has a mission statement of empowering people to create.

A just and compassionate future by exploring, preserving, and sharing the complexity of our past. So Jen, what are we talking about 

Jenn: today? We’re talking about one of the Smithsonians That’s right. The American 

Scott: History Museum. This wasn’t like our typical museum video. Mm-hmm. I didn’t get to tag along. But you got to go through the American History Museum, um, which you could probably see go to 10 times and still not see everything.

Yes. So what, tell us about some of the things that you got to see while 

Jenn: you were there. Oh my gosh. So the American History Museum is very beside the, uh, new, uh, African American museum. That’s right. So if you can’t get tickets to the African American Museum, because that is the new museum, it’s right beside there and it doesn’t seem to be as popular and crowded.

Like you said, it’s one of the Smithsonians and there’s many of them in DC Air space is a big one. Uh, natural History Museum is a big one. And this is American History Museum. I will say the biggest artifact that is the draw in that museum is the actual original Star Spangled Banner. From the war of 1812, that Francis Scott Keysaw above Fort McHenry that causes him to write dip poem that will become on national anthem.


Scott: that’s one of the things I looked up some just interesting facts about the museum, um, that I’ll share a little bit later. So hang out with us, but that’s one of the ones that they specifically call out. There’s, as I was doing, just. Kind of like pull on my, do my own very brief research on, on the museum, there’s a couple items that they specifically call out over and over on various different websites as you look, look at, uh, as you kind of read about the American History Museum.

Um, and that was definitely one of the ones that kind of got repeated across different websites. 

Jenn: And you can tell. That is a protected artifact. Oh yeah. It is In a in glass closed room. It is under no light. It is in a dark room. You’re not allowed to video it or photograph it, and you have to look at it under black light.

Really? Mm-hmm. They’re protecting the colorization. They’re protecting the threat. And it is ginormous. Yeah. It 

Scott: sit, it’s like 30 feet by 

Jenn: 34. It is a huge flag. I mean, if you can imagine. Seeing it and I, you can watch our video from Fort McHenry when I talk about this, the huge flagpole that it’s on, first of all, above Fort McHenry , and then you got key out in the harbor.

Looking at it, I can see why it would strike awe in you, because it’s a huge banner. 

Scott: Yeah, it’s probably one of those, like if you ever drive around certain parts of the south, I always noticed it, like you, uh, you drive by those car dealerships that have these just massive, huge American flags. Huge American flags.

Yeah. It’s 

Jenn: like that, like one of those, like one of those, uh, and it’s hand zone. So you can imagine like, that’s why they’re trying to preserve this. So you can go in the room, you can see it. It is, it is really neat to see. And walking in there, they’ll give you the history of it and then walking out, they give you the history of the preservation of it.

So that’s probably the biggest. Artifact, but I, I think there’s one that’s right up there with it. What 

Scott: was that?

[00:04:27] Lincoln’s Top Hat

Jenn: It’s the hat that Lincoln was wearing. The nineties. 

Scott: That’s so, so we made it, we kind of made an ad hoc video with this. Mm-hmm. Cuz Jen took a bunch of, uh, Video with like her phone. Mm-hmm. And so I, I tried something a little bit different from a video perspective of trying to, I put a much shorter video together, um, just basically a bunch of, kind of shorter clips, but that was one of the ones 


Jenn: I thought was cool.

It blew me away. I was like, this is the actual top hat that Abraham Lincoln was wearing. To Ford’s Theater the night. He was shot in April of 1865, and it’s so neat. You can see the beaver skin on it and the wear, and you can see there is a. Red ribbon, a red ribbon, a black ribbon around it, a morning ribbon, because his son had died while he was in office, and he keeps it on because of all the men that are killed during the Civil War.

Scott: Now it looked like, was it like cast in bronze or was it, what was I 

Jenn: looking at there? That’s, that’s the beaver skin. Oh, it’s just that column. Mm-hmm. It’s, it’s, it’s. Starting to fade. 

Scott: Okay? Mm-hmm. I didn’t, 

Jenn: I didn’t realize that. So another thing, you know, we, I talk about this stuff as a museum professional, how much do we protect the artifact?

Because your whole job is to protect the artifact for future generations. That’s your job as a Houston museum, conservator and archivist. But it’s also to educate the current public of the past. Through the artifact, through the story. So you have to weigh both. You’re trying to show it and keep, so again, the, it’s encased.

It’s in a no light, natural light room, and. Trying to keep it again under, it’s probably under some kind of humidity. You always have to worry about humidity. Right. Uh, and temperature. And so there’s usually a little gauge inside there, but it, they want you to see it too. I mean, you could protect it forever in a dark room and in, but who, yeah.

Scott: Nobody would see it. No. See, that’s interesting. And I didn’t realize that because even though I made the vi, I made the video based on your, your phone video footage. That’s, that’s what I thought I was looking at, was. Was they had like casted in bronze or was something like that, but it was just that color had, it had faded, so it was no longer that dark black.

Yeah. It was almost, again, on the video it kind of, it looks like this almost 

Jenn: copper. Yeah. The beaver skin is fading. Yeah. 

Scott: So it’s that kind of lighter brown, mm-hmm. Type type color. Um, 

Jenn: so they had the hat and they had a. Flag that was laid on his coffin. Yeah. So those are the two things. But they have an, a interesting area, which I, this is the area, uh, it’s located in kind of a president assassination area.

Scott: Yeah. They have a whole. That, that’s kind of like one of the, I’ll call it a wing or, or section. Mm-hmm. Was like a whole presidential history section. Yes. Area. Yes. Yes. And that’s why you were there. And then we’ll talk a little about some of the first lady stuff that you got to see. Yes. Um, so, but, but so they had like a whole presidential assassination.

Jenn: So they had the cuffs that the Lincoln conspirator swore. That’s right. And it shows you like the spacing that they put between them. They have the big key that they use for their cells. And one of the things that I thought was really neat is for President Garfield, uh, Alexander Graham Bell was brought in to find this kind of magnetic device to find the bullet in him, and it kept giving false readings because he was laying on a metal spring bed.

And so it wasn’t quite working. And they have that device Yeah. In there. So that was neat for me. Cause I had worked at the James Garfield house and they have the bed that he was laying on at the James Garfield house. But it was neat to see the actual device that Alexander Bell used. Uh, and then they have, um, other little things like they have the.

The playbill from our American cousin. Yep. So the show that Lincoln had seen that night, and they had some things from John Wilkes Booth and some, some of that other artifacts as well. But the whole president’s section, like you said, had a whole wing for the first ladies. 

[00:08:26] First Ladies

Jenn: And in that wing for the first ladies, there is a dress from, uh, Mary Todd Lincoln.

So you could kind of see what, yeah. We showed that in the video, her size and what she looked like. But most of the gowns they have are the, uh, um, inaugural ball gowns that the first ladies would wear that night. And that’s 

Scott: what, that’s what most, I mean, 99% of people, if they think of like, Hey, you know, the, the first lady in a dress, that’s what they’re gonna think of.

Mm-hmm. Right? Because that’s kind of the most public they’re likely ever gonna be. Yes. So, 

Jenn: and I always like looking at gowns. I, same thing when we saw Princess dies gowns in England. You get the, a good sense of the size of the person. Sure. Right. So we got to see like Barbara Bush’s gowns and Hillary Clinton’s gown and Michelle Obama’s gown and Melania Trump’s gown.

Yeah. So you could really kind of see the Laura Bush’s gown was there and the different colors that they had chosen for that night. Yep. And kind of the designers they used and what they looked like. So I thought that was very cool. They also had their China. Yeah, that 

Scott: was interesting. And I know that’s like.

Well, I, that’s like a thing every, it is because you so many state dinners, every first lady has to go in and kind of pick the theme and kind of the design mm-hmm. And all this stuff. So 

Jenn: you can definitely see influence there. You can definitely see, uh, I think president, uh, lady Bird Johnson, his very southern looking, uh, Nancy Reagan with the red, Republican Red like, so you can definitely see an influence in the China.

Uh, and you know, since then we’ve talked to some people, some. Times China is taken as a memento that you ate at the pres, the president’s house. So that’s why the ladies usually have to come in and replace China. Oh, I didn’t know that. Because when they come in, there’s usually not much China left. Yeah.

Cuz people have taken China or it’s been gifted or something as a souvenir. Something like that. Yeah. Mm-hmm. Oh, interesting. So that’s got another reason why first ladies have to come in and, and replace China. But I, there’s a whole Americana section.

[00:10:24] Americana

Scott: Yeah. I was surprised that you didn’t. Cover more of that, because that’s one of the things that you even talked about before you went in. Mm-hmm. Right? And, and one of the things that they, they brought up, um, so some, some interesting facts about that. I looked up about the, the vast Smithsonian kind of system.

So across, uh, for, I think for the American History Museum and specifically it says that, um, that it’s responsible for the acquisition care and preservation of more than 1.8 million objects. And three shelf miles of archival collections, like three miles of shelves. Like picture that Indiana Jones movie, but not a warehouse.

Just rows and rows and rows of, of, you know, artifacts. Of, of artifacts. So the things that, that they, all the websites call out? Well, they’ve, they’ve got. Dorothy’s Ruby Red Slippers. Yes, that’s a classic one. Um, I think you even mentioned the Archie Bunker’s chair. Archie Bunker’s chair is there all in the family.

They’ve got Muhammad Ali’s gloves. Yes. Um, they’ve got all, all sorts of stuff now across all of the Smithsonian collections. Like all 21 different, you know, museums that they have there. The total number of objects of work and art, uh, and specimens at the Smithsonian is estimated nearly 157 million. Oh my gosh.

Now, uh, About 148 million of that is force is scientific specimens. Oh. At the National Museum of Natural History. Okay. So, so the Museum of Natural History, little Rocks and Yeah. To Little Rocks and bugs and, and all the, all the stuff. Okay. Right. But still, that’s, that’s a mind blowing amount of, of artifacts that they’re.

Responsible for maintaining It 

Jenn: is. And I was blown away cuz you walk in and there’s like R two D two and to C three po. Yeah, that’s so cool that they’re right there. So you get to kind of see again, their size and what they look like. Um, and I thought it was neat to see, uh, the map pole from mash. That’s right.

You know where all the distances are from 

Scott: all the cities. Is that, is that, was that near the helicopter? No. 

Jenn: That you saw? No, no. That was all in the Americana section. Okay. So all the Americana section had everything from the film and movies and things like that. You have Rocky Balbo as the Italian stall.

Yep. Jack was there. Um, Mr. Rogers’s sweater. Sweater was there. You actually have Ali Wong. Her standup dress was there. Really? Yeah. Oh, that’s so funny. You love that stand. I did. So I was like, oh my gosh. Ellie Wong’s dress. Um, So they have all this kind of little pieces of Americana in there. Uh, stuff from Prince Sure.

Michael Jackson. You know, it was very neat to see all of these things that you kind of remember from, uh, TV and movies in there. Uh, and I, I really appreciated seeing, um, Maya Angelou, Maya Angel. They have Maya Angelou typewriter there, which I thought was amazing cuz I like her books. Yeah. And I like her poem.

So that was neat to see that. And. There’s another artifact there, the ship Philadelphia, and we’ll talk more about that in a separate podcast, but that blew me away cuz that artifact is one of the oldest ships, uh, that we have in America. 

Scott: Yeah. It is made before the USS Constitution. Yeah. 

Jenn: So it, it’s neat to see in that it’s a pretty.

Solid artifact. Yeah. And it’s in one big room. So that was a really neat thing. That’s 

Scott: pretty wild. So where was that? The hel the Vietnam helicopter. 

Jenn: So that’s on a different floor and they go into the war. So it’s like America at war. So it tells a bunch of different stories. It’s gonna tell Civil War, it’s gonna tell, and, and it’s gonna roll into Vietnam.

And that was part of the Vietnam story. So they have a, a entire. Huey Army, Huey Helicopter from Vietnam. Yeah. Which was amazing to see. But they have the war posters and they have, I think they have Thomas Jefferson’s desk. They have George Washington’s trunk. They have, they’re trying to bring different things from, 

Scott: and, and, and even for kind of history nerds like us, you know, all the, all the stuff we do.

Like, I feel like if, once I finally get there, cause I’ve never been. Um, I, I would have to not bring my camera cuz I would just wanna walk around and just 

Jenn: take it all in. That’s how I felt because it’s, it’s so many amazing things. Like you and for the Civil War, you have Sherman’s horse, like his entire horse is there.

Yeah, it’s stuffed. Yeah. And then you have the chairs from the surrender of the Civil War, from the McClean house. That’s right. Like all, so they’re housing these pretty. Big artifacts in the glass and then telling the story. I mean, a horse, so. You’re walking through. They don’t have, there’s things I appreciate and things I don’t, they have to tell quick stories.

Yep. Right. It’s quick stories about Revolutionary War, quick stories about the Civil War, because they have so much story to tell and that’s what I thought was interesting about American History Museum. I’m like, what story are they telling here? Because there’s so much story to tell. So they bring out the big artifacts and kind of tell that story, but it’s quick, it’s a quick story.

You could go to a World War II Museum and see a lot more. You could go to a Civil War museum and see a lot more. They’re bringing out the big things that they have to tell that story quickly. Um, they even have on the bottom floor a, a low rider. So they’re showing you Yeah, it’s all kind of airbrushed too.

Yeah. Like, you know, and they’re kind of showing you even more Americana like it’s, and so I find the American History Museum interesting cuz like what part of Americana of America’s past are we telling here? Are we preserving here? What story? And there’s so many stories to tell us. You can tell how they.

Pick and choose their exhibits. Yeah. And what, and I’m sure they rotate stuff. I’m sure they do. Cause they probably have, they have to, I mean, millions of things. Yeah. Uh, but I I, it’s neat. It’s neat to get in there and really look at things and, uh, no, that, 

Scott: that makes me smile that they got a, a, you know, an airbrush Lowrider re reminds me of home in Southern California.

Jenn: It does. It totally does. It was, and they have like the clothing of that time and they tell stories about. Companies in America. I think they had like singer sewing machines and things like that. And they tell the story of transportation, I think at Low Rider was part of that exhibit. Gotcha. And so they had like they were talking about trains and bicycles and things in motorcycles and so it’s just a very interesting how the American History Museum picks and chooses what.

Stories they’re telling and when B, based on what artifacts they have. But it was definitely neat. You have to see it. It’s free. And I think it was very good for kids. Yeah, they have very, they have a hands-on area for kids and so it’s a great place to bring your family. Uh, and I think. All of the museums in DC are free.

So it’s just one that has a lot of cool stuff that I think the whole family can enjoy. 

Scott: Yeah. Well, I, I think we may need to, to make another concerted effort for us to, to bring our family up there, uh, before the Navy pulls me away to, to somewhere else, whenever that is. Um, because there’s so many museums up there, whether it’s the spy museum or it’s the air and space, or it’s the American history or whatever it is.

Mm-hmm. Um, you know, I, I. I would be doing myself, even myself, a non-story nerd, um, a disservice if I didn’t get to a couple of the museums, you know, one or two more times before, before we leave. Yes. So again, uh, for those listening, thank you for listening to the Talk with History podcast and please reach out to us, our website, talk with history.com.

But more importantly, if you know someone else that might enjoy this podcast, please share it with them. Especially if you think today’s topic would enter us a friend, shoot ’em a text and tell ’em to look us up. We rely on you, our community to grow and we appreciate y’all every day. We’ll talk to you next time.

Thank you.

Published by Scott

The mountains are calling, let me grab a jacket and my kids.

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