Television and the Smithsonian: The Allure of Objects

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

Television's success relies on both comfortable familiarity and beguiling change. Viewers today are accustomed to periodic remodeling of talk show sets and formats, usually in tandem with cast changes or plummeting ratings. Since the 1950s, presentation techniques have become slicker, the sets more glassy, and the video segments more sophisticated. Yet many aspects remain the same. Hosts and their guests continue to cluster around tables or desks, and Smithsonian scientists and curators are still encouraged to bring along artifacts to the studio. Despite its extraordinary ability to spirit viewers to other times and places, to spotlight the sweat on a candidate's brow or the twinkle in a comedian's eye, television has long relied on living creatures and objects to impart reality and validate its authority.

Show-and-tell quickly became part and parlance of the medium. In the early 1950s, Smithsonian zookeepers took pythons and small mammals to local stations, and when two anthropologists appeared on the Johns Hopkins Science Review in Baltimore, they brought along skeletons, carefully crated for transport.

Broadcast from the studios of WTOP-TV, Washington, D.C. Pictured from left: Smithsonian Institution

In April 1953, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of powered flight, a Washington, D.C., station invited Smithsonian Secretary Leonard Carmichael, his predecessor Charles Greeley Abbot, and aeronautics curator Paul Garber to appear on an early morning talk show. They brought with them objects from the institution's collections.

Hanging on the set wall were Charles Lindbergh's flying suit and a map of the aviator's transatlantic flight, while a tiny model of Spirit of St. Louis sat on the desk. Garber clutched a book of photographs related to the plane. WTOP announcer Bill Jenkins held the latest issue of Saturday Evening Post, which featured an article by Lindbergh. Another guest, airline executive and former West Virginia congressman Jennings Randolph, used a passenger plane model to illustrate how air travel had changed since Lindbergh's daring-do.

The ten-minute segment followed a predictable path. Viewers were told how Lindbergh's plane had made one final flight to Washington in 1928, for display at the Arts & Industries Building, alongside the Wright Brothers Flyer and other technological wonders. Abbot recalled the delicate process of maneuvering the plane into the building. Carmichael described how 4,237 people walked through the museum to look at Spirit during its first three hours on display and how, since then, millions of people had marveled at the plane.

"Spirit of St. Louis" in the A&I Building

In early 1953, as Lindbergh was writing his Saturday Evening Post article, the aviator, too, had visited the museum. The Smithsonian arranged a platform so that he could climb into the cockpit, to locate the marks he had made to gauge his fuel consumption.

Today, video (and television viewed via smartphones) can allow people anywhere in the world to perambulate the Spirit of St. Louis. The effort to digitize Smithsonian collections -- providing new perspectives on miniscule objects, fragile documents, and fading photographs, and then diffusing the images electronically for education, enjoyment, study, analysis, or research -- is a welcome next step along the communications frontier. And yet, as we add millions of images to our collective memory, humans still savor real experiences, still gain from proximity to extraordinary objects and from opportunities to view them unmediated, at our own pace, rather than an editor's. Can a photo of a marmoset or magnificent diamond ever substitute for the real thing? The contents of the Smithsonian (automobiles, Audubon prints, augers, autoclaves, Gene Autry lunchboxes) retain their power even in an age flooded with digital images. Do objects matter? Ask yourself that question when you are standing beneath Lindbergh's plane.

Next month, I will describe a night when the "actuality" of live television combined with historical artifacts (including Spirit of St. Louis) provided Smithsonian visitors with a once-in-a-universe experience.

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