Flotsam, jetsam and bit parts Exhibit: How the small things of American culture play supporting roles to the nation's major events.

January 02, 1998|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

In 1951, a furious political circus surrounded Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted for leaking information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.

But there was more at play in the case than communism and conspiracy. Like Jell-O, for instance.

Such historical facts, both obscure and well-known, make up the third annual installment of "American Originals," an exhibit at the National Archives Building in Washington.

"American Originals," which opened in December and will run for a year, features sometimes quirky, frequently compelling documents, images and paraphernalia that show aspects of American history from 1704 to 1991. It's a kinetic, insightful education that sterile museums and thick, dusty history books can't match.

"Some of these figures and events are larger than life," said "American Originals" curator Stacy Bredhoff. "These documents humanize history by providing a physical connection to events and people."

The 26 cases of exhibits were culled from the National Archives ** and Records Administration, a holding of millions of historic documents, maps, architectural drawings, still pictures, aerial photographs, reels of motion picture film, and sound and video recordings.

Mostly the archives are in the National Archives Building in Washington, but more of the holdings are distributed throughout the country in regional archives and presidential libraries.

Bredhoff made the selections for "American Originals," which are displayed in the National Archives Building's rotunda. The rotunda permanently houses the Constitution, Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.

Bredhoff chose the items to present a kaleidoscope of American history with no particular theme in mind.

The exhibit includes documents from events of historical significance that have filtered their way into pop culture, such as the Amistad incident and Watergate. And it also asserts pop culture's connection to history, with such selections as the first issue of MAD magazine, used by a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in the 1950s to try to prove the link between comic books and juvenile delinquency.

"I never expected to see the first issue of MAD magazine as an example of what makes America great," said David Kaplan, 21, of Greensboro, N.C., while browsing through the exhibit last week.

Artifacts that present such fresh, unexpected takes on history's weightiest heroes and events are common in this exhibit.

The meticulous register of the World War II Austrian concentration camp Mauthausen, with its detailed information on the victims, including prisoner numbers, names and often fabricated causes of death, shows the Nazis' chilling indifference to the horror. Black and white pictures of children working for low wages, taken by Lewis W. Hine circa 1910 in an effort to motivate reform of child labor laws, are touching, vivid looks into early 20th-century injustice. The messy, slapdash handwriting on the "First Report of the Battle of Little Bighorn," a postcard that confirmed Custer's death, conveys urgency and panic.

"It reminds you how poor communication was back then," said Emily Young, 47, a visitor from Palo Alto, Calif., referring to the report. "Today, all the details would be flashed across the world in a matter of seconds."

Other major American war and political icons join Custer in a series of candid documents. A 1918 letter from then Capt. Harry S. Truman to his fiancee, Bess Wallace, offers an uplifting, energetic commentary on his feelings as a leader. The corrections written into the fifth draft of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1941 "Four Freedoms" speech were inserted the man himself. You can even see John Hancock's John Hancock on the 1781 Articles of Confederation, preserved on yellowing parchment.

"I liked seeing the signatures right in front of me," said Toby Branz, a 14-year-old Palo Alto, Calif., resident.

The exhibit even grants spectators a look into President Bush's personal form of diplomacy before the Gulf war. Bush's diary of 1991 lists calls he made to dozens of world leaders including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

The exhibit also adds depth to Hollywood heroes.

Movie fans might be interested in seeing the 1942 petition for naturalization for Cary Grant, known in his native England as Archibald Alexander Leach. Then there's Greta Garbo's 1948 declaration of intention to become a U.S. citizen, complete with a small picture of the Swedish screen legend.

"It's a wallet passport photo, and she looks stunning," Bredhoff said.

The stuff of politics that have become increasingly glamorized is also part of "American Originals." There's a typed draft of Jackie Kennedy's "Camelot" interview, complete with the jarring 1963 Life magazine cover of Kennedy awaiting her husband's funeral procession. Sneaky details of the Watergate break-in, including Chap Stick tubes containing hidden microphones, are also featured.

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