'America's Attic' Team Dredges Convention For Historical Riches

Harry Rubenstein and William "Larry" Bird Jr. spent the Democratic convention collecting memorabilia for the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. i i

hide captionHarry Rubenstein and William "Larry" Bird Jr. spent the Democratic convention collecting memorabilia for the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Becky Lettenberger/NPR
Harry Rubenstein and William "Larry" Bird Jr. spent the Democratic convention collecting memorabilia for the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Harry Rubenstein and William "Larry" Bird Jr. spent the Democratic convention collecting memorabilia for the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Becky Lettenberger/NPR

William "Larry" Bird Jr. and Harry Rubenstein, outfitted with camera and backpack, are on the hunt in Charlotte, N.C.

Their quarry?

"Banner, badges, buttons, ribbons and signs," says Rubenstein, one half of the Smithsonian Institution's political convention memorabilia team of "Harry and Larry," as they're affectionately known to their colleagues.

The men, fresh off the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., have spent this week at the Time Warner Cable Arena collecting and shipping their finds back to the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

This is the fifth presidential convention season they've teamed up.

I met up with them Thursday, and we immediately hopped a freight elevator to the bowels of the arena, past the loading dock and to the boiler room. Literally.

There we found Tom Lindenfeld, the guy who's putting on the show for the convention and the Obama campaign. Huge bins held signs, flags and other props.

Lindenfeld was overseeing the operation that results in signs displayed by crowds, flags, confetti, posters and all the trappings of a modern campaign.

Bird and Rubenstein collect those signs for the museum, but the official campaign-produced items are just part of what they're looking to collect.

A sign in the event level of the arena. i i

hide captionA sign in the event level of the arena.

Becky Lettenberger/NPR
A sign in the event level of the arena.

A sign in the event level of the arena.

Becky Lettenberger/NPR

They're also scoping out people who make and wear items — hats, buttons, articles of clothing — things that show activism, the men say, and engagement.

They not only want the Obama campaign sign that says FORWARD and may have a Twitter hashtag (# - a new feature on signs this year, they say), but the red, white and blue hat festooned with old campaign buttons that the lady from Mississippi made.

"We're trying to document the whole," Rubenstein said. "We're trying to get a representative collection over time, not just the outrageous."

"These are the tools of the conventions," he said. "They make a larger statement of American democracy."

Campaign memorabilia have been a tradition for centuries, long before balloon drops and timed sign flips.

Rubenstein, chairman of the Smithsonian's Division of Politics and Reform, and Bird, the division's curator, say that as our culture becomes more ephemeral, it becomes more difficult to document the conventions.

They said Republican conventions have far fewer hard campaign event items like signs. Bird provided me this contrast between the two parties and their presidential events: Republicans will project an electronic American flag on the backdrop of the stage; Democrats will hand out American flags.

"There's a larger truth in there that I'm still grappling with," he said.

Advised Rubenstein: Ask the political operatives about the different approaches.

They also note that the advent of the handheld video camera spawned a whole new breed of convention-goers: those who dress outrageously and make a point of sitting on aisle seats in an effort to get featured on television.

Bird and Rubenstein, who collaborated on a book about World War II home front posters, say the items they collect end up in storage on the fourth floor of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Their collection of about 100,000 similar items are used for exhibitions, research and for loans to other institutions and organizations. Some can be seen online at the museum's Behring Center, where the men work.

When Bird and Rubenstein get home, they'll not only sort through their finds. They'll also hope that the creators of the great handmade hat or shirt or walking stick they discovered while walking the aisles and stairways of the arenas in Tampa and Charlotte may decide they're willing to send those items on to America's treasure-filled attic.

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