Smithsonian Institution's 'Souvenir Nation' opens Friday

Tourists are always looking for souvenirs to remember their trips to our nation's capital. But not long ago, instead of buying post cards or taking pictures of local landmarks, historians say Americans would take bits and pieces of those historic sites by chipping away at them. A new exhibit on the National Mall reveals some of those unique relics in the Smithsonian Institution's collection.

At the Smithsonian Castle’s souvenir shop, tourists are quick to buy some classic keepsakes – like snow globes and shot glasses. But just down the hall, they can now browse some unique souvenirs from the past. These items are not for sale, because they're relics collected by so-called “relic hunters” – from a time when museums and the concept of "historic preservation" did not exist.

William L. Bird, curator for the National Museum of American History said, “The other word that comes up in association with ‘relic hunter’ is vandal or vandalism, which is something that we discourage today.”

The new exhibit 'Souvenir Nation' features items, long tucked away in storage in the Smithsonian Institution’s collection: a fragment of the Washington Monument cornerstone, a piece of George Washington's coffin, wood chopped by Abraham Lincoln and a chunk of Plymouth Rock.

Chris Ubik – who got a sneak peak of the new exhibit on Wednesday, along with other history enthusiasts and local journalists – said, “A hammer was kept on site [of Plymouth Rock] to chip away pieces of it. And the neat thing about this exhibition is it shows how we've kind of grown away from chipping away our heritage to collecting it and preserving it.”

Bird says the artifacts on display are priceless – not just because of their historical context, but also because without that context many would literally have no value.

“Most of these things are actually little pieces of wood, little pieces of stone,” he said.

One display in the exhibit generating a lot of discussion and disbelief is a collection of hair from the nation's founding fathers.

After touring the exhibit, preservationist Julia Rocchi said, “The presidents’ hair locks freak me out… To ask for a piece of someone's anatomy speaks to lots of personal boundary issues. Mores have certainly changed in that regard.”

At that time in history, Bird said human hair was requested and clipped much like autographs today. “Then, in the mid-19th century, it was a quite a common thing that people would ask people for locks of hair in terms of their own sentiment or personal interests in the person,” he said.

The exhibit opens to the public on Friday, August 9. Admission is free.