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Memorabilia Reflect Evolution of U.S. Politics

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Memorabilia Reflect Evolution of U.S. Politics


Memorabilia Reflect Evolution of U.S. Politics

Memorabilia Reflect Evolution of U.S. Politics

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

While the feelings inspired by a particular campaign may fade, the buttons, posters, T-shirts and stickers live on. Many of these items are part of a collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Guest Host Audie Cornish speaks with the collection's two curators, Larry Bird and Harry Rubenstein.


Memories of Bobby Kennedy's political campaign and the politics of the '60s remain vivid to those who lived through the era. For those who didn't, there are photos, posters, buttons and banners to tell us about the slogans and spirit of that time. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington has one of the largest collections of political memorabilia.

We sent one of our producers there to meet with the collection's curators, Larry Bird and Harry Rubenstein.

Mr. LARRY BIRD (Smithsonian Institution): These are metal enclosed wooden cabinets filled with drawers of things and little box of clickers. This is click with Dick. A Nixon puzzle - little, get the balls in the right place; put the right man in the right spot. Say I'm for Nixon.

CORNISH: Clickers and puzzles are only a few of the approximately 100,000 items that can be found in the Smithsonian collection. Joining us in the studio to talk about this memorabilia are Larry Bird and Harry Rubenstein.

Mr. BIRD: Thank you.

Mr. HARRY RUBENSTEIN (Smithsonian Institution): Thank you.

CORNISH: Larry, I'm going to start with you. What makes this stuff worthy of being collected at the Smithsonian?

Mr. BIRD: Well, it's a way that the people express their personal activism and engagement and their involvement with our democracy through campaigns and elections.

CORNISH: Now, Harry, thinking about that then, what are some of your favorite items in the collection?

MR. RUBENSTEIN: That's always one of the hardest questions to answer, in part because it's the object that can't be given away at the moment that some time later comes to us. It's that personal expression of something they made to express either their locale or their support of a candidate. Those tend to be my favorite objects.

CORNISH: Larry, is there anything for you that stands out from the collection?

Mr. BIRD: Well, in terms of what we've collected a couple of cycles ago in the '80s, we noticed that there was a sort of voodoo economics theme. We noticed that people were making Reagan voodoo dolls...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: You go really far with that.

Mr. BIRD: ...and selling them on the street. But my favorite was we got a donation from Ross Perot of his phone corps charts that he used in his television appearances. And with the charts we received quite unexpectedly a voodoo pointer that a woman, a supporter of his from Louisiana, had sent him.

CORNISH: So, why is so important for you to hold on to these pieces you can hold on to?

MR. RUBENSTEIN: As much as this stuff seems to be very marginal to the official campaign, it's clearly part of the American political process. And it is part of the larger way in which American democracy works. People want to proclaim their loyalty to a cause, to a party, to a candidate. This is the material that they seek out to be able to do that.

CORNISH: Now, lastly, this summer we're coming up on convention season. I'm wondering what your strategy is or your technique for getting those people on the floor, the people who wear the wacky hats and have not just one button but ten. What do you say to them to get them to give it up basically?

Mr. BIRD: It's really not fair to ask them for something at that moment. But you just plant the seed with them that this is something that we would like to have.

CORNISH: And, Harry, for you, I mean, what are you looking for? Is it the wacky hat; is it the button? Who's the person you approach and how do you get them to give them that?

MR. RUBENSTEIN: We're looking actually for things that are similar to what we've seen in the past and something that we don't expect. You know, there's thousands of delegates, thousands of reporters, and then there's the two of us from a museum going around trying to interact and understand and collect and preserve that political moment.

CORNISH: Larry Bird and Harry Rubenstein are curators with the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Thank you.

Mr. BIRD: Thank you.

MR. RUBENSTEIN: Thanks for having us.

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