The Smithsonian is big. The National Museum of American History is big. Many of our artifacts, like the John Bull locomotive and the Star–Spangled Banner, are big. Many of our exhibitions are big. May we introduce you to a small space that packs in big surprises and unsuspected treasures you might not be looking for. And we promise something new to repeat visitors.
The Albert H. Small Documents Gallery is devoted to the display of rare and historically significant documents. When we reopened in 2008 it housed a copy of the Gettysburg Address, hand-written by Lincoln and on loan from the White House. I was able to stand, in an uncrowded and quiet space, and read the Gettysburg Address written in Lincoln’s own hand. It made a big impression. Each exhibit in the gallery tells an important story. Because it is contained in one room, I find it very accessible. It is easy to view the exhibit from start to finish and read everything the curators provide. There is a big sense of accomplishment.
One of my favorite displays was Earl Shaffer and the Appalachian Trail. About all I knew about the trail before I went in was where it was and that is was . . . long. I left with knowledge of the trail and of Earl Shaffer, the first man to walk the trail in one continuous hike. Because the gallery used his original documents-diary, maps, photos, journal—I got a first-hand sense of what it was like to really be there. I could read his words and understand just how cold and hot and tired he was. A brief lunchtime visit brought me into the woods and out again.
From the diary of Earl Shaffer: "In morn, weather cleared somewhat. Since it’s Sun. and stores closed I am remaining here till noon and will move on PM so I am not far from Gorham tomorrow and can get mail etc. In afternoon hiked through Gorham and camped near powerhouse to north. Mosquitoes very bad at night." -July 17, 1948
The current exhibit is called Cosmos in Miniature: The Remarkable Star Map of Simeon De Witt. This was yet another subject I was unfamiliar with, but it was easy to become a quick study. I knew that there were astronomers long before there were powerful telescopes, but that someone in the 18th century created a star map as intricate and detailed as this was a revelation. How Mr. DeWitt crammed so much detail into such a small drawing is nothing short of remarkable.
I understand many of our visitors come here only once in their life, and seeing the famous artifacts is important. But if you are looking to discover some unexpected treasures, visit The Albert H. Small Documents Gallery and you may learn a great deal and have stories to tell.
Kathy Sklar is the business program manager at the National Museum of American History.