Smithsonian: Meaning of Family Heirlooms

Feb 24, 2014

Credit Tadson Bussey/flickr creative commons

From Faith Middleton: A chair… letter… diary… clock… coin… jewel… car… house… meat grinder… what makes a family heirloom have powerful meaning, even if it has little monetary value? That question will be answered when you read The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects by Richard Kurin.

Kurin and a large team of staffers went through The Smithsonian Museum's collections of millions of items to pick out the 101 objects that most represent (in their view) the American experience. It's an unimaginable task, and is likely to cause spirited conversation about what was excluded, or included. Why this author and not that author? Why Seinfeld and not Oprah? Why are there fewer than ten women on the list of 101?

What is mentioned in the book and Smithsonian exhibit it has inspired is, however, interesting reading, whether you are a history buff, pop culture fan, or simply enjoy a book you can pick up and put down, learning a little something along the way.

Listen to my conversation with the Smithsonian's Kurin to hear how the objects were acquired by the institution, including:

  • Jacqueline Kennedy's Inaugural Ball gown
  • The Baltimore-made Star Spangled Banner
  • Abraham Lincoln's hat
  • Julia Child's kitchen
  • Alexander Graham Bell's telephone
  • Marian Anderson's mink coat
  • Helen Keller's custom-made watch
  • Katharine Hepburn's Oscar statues
  • The Hope diamond
  • The Space Shuttle Discovery
  • George Washington's uniform and sword
  • AIDS Memorial Quilt panel
  • Benjamin Franklin's walking stick
  • New York Fire Department engine door, September 11
  • Chuck Berry's Gibson guitar
  • Thomas Edison's light bulb
  • Louis Armstrong's trumpet
  • Harriet Tubman's hymnal and shawl
  • The birth control pill

Richard Kurin was trained as an anthropologist, and is Under Secretary for Art, History, and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution.

“West End Blues,” Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, 1928

Fireside chat #1, Franklin D. Roosevelt, March 12, 1933

“This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie, 1945

“Johnny B. Goode,” Chuck Berry, 1958

The French Chef Season 1, Episode 1, February 11, 1963

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  • Richard Kurin is the author of The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects.


  • “Gne Gne,” Montefiori Cocktail
  • “West End Blues,” Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
  • “This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie
  • “Johnny B. Goode,” Chuck Berry
  • “American Baby,” Dave Matthews Band