Traveling Slice of Americana to Debut in L.A.


On the surface, the top hat Abraham Lincoln wore that fateful night at the Ford Theater has nothing in common with an eagle feather war bonnet of the Pawnee people, Dorothy’s ruby slippers or Thomas Edison’s light bulb.

But these and about 300 other items form an exhibit as diverse and eclectic as America itself and they’re all coming to Los Angeles’ doorstep. In February, the most diverse city in the nation will host “America’s Smithsonian,” a traveling exhibit of more than 300 historic and rare artifacts.

The traveling tour--offering a slice of Americana ranging from the Wright brothers’ airplane to George Washington’s battle sword--will mark the museum’s 150th anniversary, and will go to 12 cities in two years.

Although Feb. 9 marks the actual day the exhibit opens in Los Angeles, Mayor Richard Riordan will join Smithsonian officials today in officially announcing that Los Angeles will be the first host.


“We see this as a big win for Los Angeles, being selected as the initial host for the American Smithsonian exhibition,” Riordan said. “Our children will have the chance to interact with history, to see many of the artifacts that tell our nation’s great story.”

The exhibit, free to the public and to be held at the Los Angeles Convention Center through March 7, will take up more than 50,000 square feet. In a leap to the electronic age, the exhibit will also include an accompanying CD-ROM program and a direct link with the Smithsonian’s World Wide Web site on the Internet. In addition, two CBS television specials narrating the Smithsonian’s wide collection of artifacts are planned for next year.

At the exhibit, visitors will be treated to a Disneyland-like tour of America as they enter one of three galleries titled “Discovering,” “Imagining” and “Remembering.” Each gallery will house artifacts pertaining to each theme. For example, the “Discovering” gallery will include dinosaur fossils, the Wright brothers airplane and the Apollo 14 command module.

In the “Imagining” gallery, visitors will view works from an array of artists such as Alfred Steigletz, Edward Hopper and Fernando Botero. Ancient and fine jewelry will be on display, such as a 182-carat blue star sapphire known as the Star of Bombay, a gift from actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to his wife, Mary Pickford.


In the “Remembering” gallery, the exhibit commemorates historic events ranging from political movements to scientific discoveries to Hollywood movie paraphernalia. Besides Washington’s sword, visitors can see a jacket worn by United Farm Workers union leader Cesar Chavez and the slippers worn by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz.”

The exhibit, funded privately through Discover Corp., Intel and MCI, is expected to cost several million dollars.

“The touring exhibition and the electronic transmission of Smithsonian information on the Internet will bring the national museums to millions of people who may not plan to visit Washington next year,” said I. Michael Heyman, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. “If they cannot come to us, we will go to them.”