Smithsonian expert to discuss local artifacts at Heinz History Center



Andy Warhol and Jonas Salk are two of the people with Pittsburgh connections featured in a new book that uses artifacts to tell the story of the United States.

Author Richard Kurin will talk about the artist and the medical researcher during a book launch party on Saturday at the Heinz History Center. He is the author of "The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects."

Mr. Kurin is the museum's under-secretary for history, art and culture. He worked with the Smithsonian's curators and scholars to pick the artifacts included in the book.

Items from the museum collection featured in his book include a syringe and vials that Jonas Salk used at the University of Pittsburgh when he developed the first polio vaccine in 1952. "This was a time when either polio or the Soviet Union was viewed as Public Enemy No. 1," Mr. Kurin said in a recent interview.

Pittsburgh-born Warhol's painting of Marilyn Monroe also made the cut. "His Monroe portrait illustrates the commodification of sexual glamour," the author said.

Mr. Kurin estimated that about a dozen of the objects covered in his history have connections to Western Pennsylvania.

His discussion of the objects also includes information on the arguments over selecting artifacts for display in the nation's top historical museum.

One of those controversies involved Samuel Langley, the former head of the Allegheny Observatory on Pittsburgh's North Side.

Langley later became director of the Smithsonian. During those years he also was one of the nation's leading aviation experimenters, competing with the Wright Brothers to develop an airplane.

While Langley's steam-powered but unpiloted "Aerodrome" made the first successful heavier-than-air flight in 1896, efforts to fly a gasoline-powered version of the aircraft with a pilot failed until 1914. That was more than a decade after the Wright brothers had successful test flights of their airplane in December 1903.

The decision by Langley's successors to display the Aerodrome as the "first man-carrying aeroplane" led to a long-running dispute between the Smithsonian and Orville Wright, Mr. Kurin said. As a result, the museum did not get the brothers' Wright Flyer -- the plan they flew at Kitty Hawk, N.C. -- for its aviation collection until after World War II.

Mr. Kurin said he took a very broad view of American history.

His book starts with Burgess Shale, ancient rock that contains 500-million-year-old fossilized remains of sea creatures.

"The last object is the giant Magellan telescope in Chile, which allows us to see far into the universe and back 11 billion years," he said.

In between are items ranging from a stovepipe hat that belonged to Abraham Lincoln to the ruby slippers that Judy Garland wore in "The Wizard of Oz."

He also writes about "The Star-Spangled Banner" that flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. That flag was the inspiration for Francis Scott Key, who wrote a poem about the event that became the words to the national anthem.

"People wanted to touch the flag," he said. "It became a secular religious relic."


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.

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