WASHINGTON -- There aren't many places where you can see George Washington's hair, a stone from Joan of Arc's dungeon and a fence rail split by Abraham Lincoln all in one room.
At the Smithsonian Institution's 'Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes and Curios,' now open in the Smithsonian Castle's Schermer Hall, you can.
The exhibit features keepsakes passed down in America through the centuries -- among the more unusual are a lock of Sir Walter Scott's hair, one of Emperor Napoleon's napkins and a fragment of George Washington's coffin -- or, in the case of a magnifying glass used to examine the infamous 'hanging chads' of the 2000 presidential election, more recent history.
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Many of the items in 'Souvenir Nation' were leftover objects, forgotten about and unwanted. They're "ordinary objects of extraordinary circumstance," as the companion book puts it.
Often, these objects were saved by ordinary people who just wanted to own a small piece of history. "You can't have a museum without people who have this idea: to save things," exhibit curator William Bird said during a preview last week.
One tip for wannabe collectors from Bird: save your postcards.
"In the days before people had Instagram and Twitter feeds, the postcard was pretty much it," he said. Indeed, 'Souvenir Nation' opens with the juxtaposition of a chipped-off piece of Plymouth Rock next to a postcard of the rock. With fewer postcards being sent these days, it won't be too long until we look back with curiosity on how they portrayed daily life.
'Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes and Curios' is free and open in the Smithsonian Castle's Schermer Hall until August 17, 2014.