Memory’s Storehouse

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We are a profligate people, justly celebrated for the way in which we make things, use things, and then throw them away. The evidence is all around us.

But there is a contradiction here: if we throw away, we also keep, in the manner of an aging person squirreling away packets of love letters from a long-dead romance. To such a person, the letters represent more than nostalgia; they are part of a personal history, tangible evidence of a life once lived, and hence important. As a nation, we are much the same. It would be difficult to think of another people who have been so conscious, from the beginning, of taking part in the very stuff of history, of being involved in the greatest social and political experiment of all time. And as if to reinforce that conviction, we have done our own kind of squirreling away.

Consider the objects on the opposite page, unprepossessing but redolent with history—for they are the writing case and one of the camp cups used by George Washington during the Revolution.

They are just two of hundreds of items in a major exhibit on Washington that opens this February to commemorate the 250th anniversary of his birth. “Our aim is to present, as nearly as possible, Washington the man—not the myth,” the exhibit’s director, Margaret Klapthor, has said, and to do this she and her co-workers have gathered an extraordinary collection of artifacts, among them his cradle and christening dress; the compass he used as a professional surveyor; the tattered field tent, mess kit, blanket, and telescope that accompanied him during his Revolutionary campaigns; a gold-headed walking stick bequeathed to him by Benjamin Franklin (who had himself received it from one of his French admirers); and, yes, one pair of his several sets of dentures (which, contrary to common belief, were not made of wood but of gold and ivory).

This spectacular exhibit, which will be on display until January 7, 1983, is suitably lioused in what must be one of the most remarkable museums in the world: the National Museum of American History in Washington, D. C. When the museum opened in 1964—appropriately enough in the shadow of the Washington Monument—it was called the National Museum of History and Technology (the name was changed last October). Its three floors of public exhibits can legitimately be called the storehouse of the nation’s memory. For in its possession, under the aegis of the Smithsonian Institution, are more than seventeen million things that Americans have chosen not to throw away.

Those seventeen million objects are not all there to be seen, of course; they have not yet even been thoroughly catalogued, a job that is testing the mettle of modern computer technology. Most are stashed in storerooms in the basement of the museum’s imposing building, or in warehouses within the region. But there is plenty left, splendidly displayed, a cornucopia of things that illustrate the habits, tastes, dress, concerns, conflicts, politics, wars, and technology of Americans over nearly three hundred years.

There is the room from a house built in 1684, the reflecting candle-lamp used by Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence, a handmade cello from 1794, a typical World War II barracks (complete with latrine). There is Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone of 1876, Thomas Edison’s “talking telegraph” of 1877, William Sewall’s heart-pump of 1950. There are parts of the Sturbridge Lion and all of the incredibly massive “1401,” two locomotives that bracket the age of steam railroading in America. There are gowns worn by every First Lady in our history, a post office and a candy store from the nineteenth century, a miner’s cabin from the era of the gold rush, pioneer utensils from the eighteenth century. There are stamps, coins, kitchens, cars, typewriters, toys, wooden Indians, tractors, plows, bicycles; steam, hot-air, internal combustion, and electric engines; cyclotrons, telephones, campaign buttons, protest banners, printing presses, guns, computers, pens, cameras, carpenter’s tools, grooming kits; the huge, half-naked statue of George Washington by Horatio Greenough; and the immense flag which flew over Fort McHenry and inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The StarSpangled Banner.”

And on, and on … a very department store of American history. And Americans respond, by the carloads and busloads, more than six million of them every year. The museum’s director, Roger Kennedy, suggests why in his introduction to Shirley Abbott’s extraordinary book, The National Museum of American History (recently published by Harry N. Abrams): “We work, in the interest of generations that will come after us, to store up and recall the objects that are important witnesses of our past. … These are the ones that draw from our unconscious the electricity that builds up there, awaiting a powerful symbol to which it can arc. In that moment, a recognition—a knowing again—occurs, which helps us see in that symbol an old friend.”