The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects

If you’ve never been to the Smithsonian — or even if you have — RICHARD KURIN’s newest book will put its rich history in the palm of your hand. 

It’s hard to overstate both the size and the importance of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Among its many collections, it holds 137 million objects, more than 3 million photographs and tens of millions of books, recordings, films, videotapes and documents. From Abraham Lincoln’s hat to the iconic Hope poster from Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential bid, these priceless items bring the American story to life.

Richard Kurin, Smithsonian undersecretary for history, art and culture, boldly has taken on choosing just 101 of the most illustrative items in the collection in his recent book, The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects ($50, Penguin Press). Kurin provides a fascinating history of each item and how it came to reside at the Smithsonian. Here is a peek at what made the cut:

BURGESS SHALE FOSSILS: The Smithsonian holds thousands of these fossils, which are 505 million years old. Discovered in 1909 by Charles D. Walcott, then the secretary of the Smithsonian, the fossils are among the most important in the world, giving scientists a glimpse into the earliest life on our planet.

HOPE DIAMOND: According to the Smithsonian’s scientists, this 45-carat jewel donated by Harry Winston formed 90 miles below the Earth’s surface about a billion years ago. Worth hundreds of millions of dollars today, it famously arrived in Washington, D.C., via the U.S. Postal Service in 1958. It cost $145.29 to send: $2.44 for postage and $142.85 for $1 million in insurance.

GREENSBORO SIT-IN LUNCH COUNTER: In 1960, four black students famously sat at the Greensboro, N.C., Woolworth lunch counter and asked to be served. Their sit-in lasted six months, until the chain desegregated lunch counters across the South. Moved to the Smithsonian after the Woolworth chain closed, this 8-foot section with four stools captures an inspirational moment in the civil rights movement.