Smithsonian (National Museum of American History)

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1300 Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC 20560

In Advise and Consent:

“My dear,” she said again, “nobody could want that right. The others were wise. It’s too big. Much as I want to help you, and much as I am prepared to help you in whatever you decide, the decision has got to be yours. About all I can say is what I expect Bill said and what I expect the others said: Orrin Knox has lived in a certain way and come to mean certain things to his country and his time. He has to decide now whether he wants to mean something else. It’s as simple as that.”
“Simple!” he said with a groan. “My God, what a word. Look at this,” he said, remembering the paper and giving it to her. “Does this make it simple?”
She glanced at it quickly and handed it back.
“Why don’t you give it to the Smithsonian?” she suggested with a smile. “They have everything else.”  Page i1479

In Real Life:

In Advise and Consent, the wife of Senator Orrin Knox tells him to give his letter from the President of the United States to the Smithsonian. I know the letter isn’t real – and it didn’t even end up with the Smithsonian – but all of it did seem, to me, like an invitation to check out the Smithsonian.  So I pulled up the list of Smithsonian Museums and found the National Museum of American History.  Its website says it collects artifacts of all kinds to preserve “an enduring record of our past…”  Now, that certainly seemed like a place that would preserve a Presidential letter – so I went to check it out.

It’s one of my favorite things about tripping on books.  When you go to Washington D.C. and you want to visit the Smithsonian – it opens up a whole can of worms. The Smithsonian is ubiquitous – it’s been mushrooming ever since James Smithson, see what they did there, left a half a million dollars to establish an institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”  He was British but he wanted all this diffusion to happen in America. So in 1938 – his nephew notified the Americans of this big gift. President Andrew Jackson sent the British Ambassador to pick up the money. And now  – after almost two hundred years of wrangling – the Smithsonian is holding millions of artifacts – in nineteen different buildings which makes it hard to figure out where to go and what to look at. But book travel sharpens the focus.

When I figured out the Amerian History Museum was the right place to go to check out presidential artifacts, I realized I’d been there a few times in high school. In fact,  it was one of our quick stops when we went to Washington D.C. We’d dash into the Air and Space Museum and watched To Fly, which at the time was a thoroughly modern IMAX theater experience. Then we’d dash over to the Amerian History museum to check out the first lady dresses which we circled in awe.  On this visit, we wandered around downstairs – in the transportation exhibit where we saw a California Highway Patrol officer directing traffic. We popped into Bon Appetit! Julia Child’s Kitchen at the Smithsonian,  and visited with a lifesize Julia. We examined the Star Spangled Banner in a big dark room and scrambled around in the Vietnam War. We learned what a glorious burden the American Presidency is – but I felt a rush to get back to my first lady dresses.  I was a little surprised when I saw them again – I walked among the dresses and realized they looked so much smaller – and even a little dusty or something.  Maybe the experience had grown in stature in my mind over the years.  Or had I grown? Or is it true what the website said about the Smithsonian – that it’s our nation’s attic – and maybe, hidden away in an attic – things fade over time?

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