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Encounters

American Culture’s Unlikely Debt to a British Scientist

A Fortuitous Influx of Cash Launched the Smithsonian’s Earliest Art Collection

By Helena E. Wright
November 16, 2016

In 1835, through an unlikely turn of events, the young United States became the beneficiary of the estate of one James Smithson, a British scientist of considerable means who had never set foot on American soil. The gift of $500,000 (about $12 million today) carried the stipulation that it be used to create an institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

How amazing—and baffling—this windfall must have seemed! The responsibility was tremendous, in terms of the amount, the perception, …

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Artifacts

Why Campaign Buttons Will Survive the Digital Age

For Many Voters, Wearing Political Paraphernalia Is Their Personal Connection to a Candidate

By Harry Rubenstein
November 7, 2016

On April 30, 1789, enthusiastic onlookers filled the streets, dangled out of windows, and perched on rooftops to catch a glimpse of George Washington as he made his way through the streets of New York to Federal Hall to assume the new office of President of the United States.

As at many political events that would follow, there were vendors along the procession route busily making and selling souvenirs to commemorate the day. Among the items sold were small brass …

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