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Richard Kurin: The Art of Preserving History

Smithsonian Under Secretary for History, Art and Culture Richard Kurin led a conversation about the ongoing preservation of US history.

On the power that artifacts can communicate to young people (as shown by a replica of slave shackles): “Kids ask, ‘why are they so small?’ [Their teacher] replies, ‘That’s because the child who wore these was about your age.’ If you can deliver that into a class, kids start getting a sense that they can touch, feel and understand history.”

On how artifacts can represent the context of history (as shown by President Abraham Lincoln’s top hat): “You see a band around it. This band was put on by Lincoln. It’s a mourning band [from the Civil War]. Lincoln wanted to wear it publicly on his hat because other people in the United States, both north and south, were mourning for their sons. Lincoln lost his son Willy when he served in the White House, so he put on a mourning band to show that he was a parent who was mourning too. This one object has a lot of information with it.”

TALKING WITH…RICHARD KURIN

Q: What was your first job?
A: I was a counter guy at a restaurant on Lexington Avenue [in New York].

Q: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?
A: Someone told me how Babe Ruth struck out a lot more than he hit home runs, and you don’t get to really succeed unless you try and know that sometimes you are going to fail.

Q: If you hadn’t become a cultural anthropologist, what would your alternate career path be?
A: I thought I was going to be a mathematician and a computer geek. That’s what I started off doing.

Q: If you could have dinner with one person, who would it be and why?
A: Margaret Mead. I have a lot of admiration for her. My first job in anthropology, my professor told me to go see her. I was 19 years old going to India for the first time, and the Museum of Natural History was interested in collecting stuff, so I was looking to get a gig. Margaret said if you’re a small group of people, you can change the world. And she was right. Everything starts off with a small group of people, or even an individual. In her age, she was able to speak to Americans about cultural differences around the world and get people to question their own assumptions about human nature. I thought she was fantastic.