An envelope is pulled from a cabinet full of small drawers; a tiny piece of wood is drawn from it and held up. It has a piece of thread attached; overall it measures no more than an inch. The group stands with quizzical looks on their faces and breaths are held. Then the curator explains that it is a piece from one of the ties in the original Transcontinental railroad, during the first month after completion in Promontory Point, Utah. A collective “aahhh” resounds throughout the room and everyone steps a little closer.
This reaction was the recurring theme of wonder and awe that took place at the first “tweet-up” tour at the National Museum of American History, as a curator revealed each historical object.
The “tweet-up” was part of Social Media Week DC, and the museum invited fifteen participants; a mixture of social media gurus and history enthusiasts had applied. Two collections were toured, led by curators Larry Bird, of the Political History collection, and Katherine Ott, of the Medical History collection.
Larry Bird presented pieces from the Historical Relic collection that will be featured in the upcoming exhibition “Souvenir Nation.” Bird spoke about the history of relics and keepsakes, starting with a piece of Plymouth Rock. The purpose of relics were size and the ability to travel; things that could easily be taken away and carried on a person. In some instances, locals used to wait by the rock with a chisel, to offer a piece, knowing that visitors would take one anyway. Visitors took these souvenirs as a memory of time and place; those practices would of course be illegal today.
Highlights from Bird’s selection included: a fragment from a block in the dungeon of Joan of Arc, a painted piece of the original Washington Monument cornerstone, and a miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty that was used as a fundraising tool.
Times have changed with respect to how we connect to the places we visit. A new souvenir industry was born to address the need from the transition of original relics to souvenir replicas, and then to pencils, postcards, calendars and everything else that is sold in a gift shop. However, simultaneously with the rise of technology and concerns for the environment, there are also less ephemeral objects to commemorate events.
Curator Katherine Ott did not disappoint with a selection of fascinating and, at times, unsettling medical devices. With obvious glee, she would pick things up and ask, “What is this?” and she stumped her audience more often than not; particularly with the magnetic bullet probe designed by Alexander Graham Bell.
Ott talked about how objects bring stories to life and make history tangible. Other medical devices included early prosthetics, an astronaut’s toothbrush, miscellaneous teeth, a travel case for leeches, a surgical kit, and the first artificial heart. There was even a beautifully painted ceramic bloodletting bowl, which could easily be mistaken for a pasta serving dish. Ott warned the group that some pieces were not pulled out to see because they could be too graphic, although it was puzzling to some that the tonsil guillotine and lobotomy knives did not qualify for that omission.
Both collections were intriguing choices; the group realized how easily one could relate to these objects, including being grateful that their contact lenses are not like the originals made of thick glass.
Each relic or object’s development, the raison d'être, played a role throughout our history, our progression as a civilization, and this tour was a glimpse of those stories. The museum’s collection has over three million objects, imagine all of the other stories waiting to be told.
Hosting the “tweet-up” symbolizes a token of how incredible this institution is and their dedication to use technology and social media as another outlet to share our history. It was an engaging event for those who followed along with the hash tag “SITweetup,” to share in the stories these relics had to tell and learn about objects they might not have known existed.
The day was extraordinary, and all of those that followed along will eagerly await the next opportunity. Hint, hint. Perhaps the chance within another Smithsonian Institution?