What Other Cool Shit Does the Smithsonian Have?

August 15, 2022 | Bucky Turco
Above: Tony Hawk's first skateboard. (📷: National Museum of American History)

In the newish Tony Hawk documentary, the often-spotted but identity-mistaken skater casually mentions how he donated his first skateboard to the Smithsonian. It was a “Bahne skateboard with red Stoker urethane wheels on metal trucks” according to its listing in the government’s colossal collection of stuff, and it makes you wonder: what other items of cultural import are being stashed at the Smithsonian, a sprawling institution that includes 21 museums and the National Zoo? ANIMAL poked around and curated a snippet of the pretty amazing and absolutely random swag officially owned by the United States of America.

NYC Subway Graffiti Photos by Henry Chalfant

Henry Chalfant helped document and popularize NYC subway graffiti from early on. The photographer arrived in Manhattan in 1973 and instantly became fascinated with the mysterious urban scrawl that was creating euphoria for the kids doing it and headaches for the city’s transit officials trying to stop it. As the art form really started to evolve in color and style, Henry was there. In 1977, Chalfant focused in on capturing the rolling masterpieces like no one before him: as panoramas. He would stake out a spot on the platform with a 35mm camera and when the train came rumbling into the station, he would shoot it in rapid succession and then stitch the shots together to create flawless photographic replicas of these striking ephemeral works. In 1984, Henry Chalfant and a highly talented photographer named Martha Cooper, who focused more on capturing action shots of graffiti artists than their output, released one of the most important books on the subject called Subway Art. A year prior, Chalfant co-produced the seminal documentary Style Wars. All in all, Henry ended up producing a decade-long body of work consisting of over 1,500 photos detailing the aerosol achievements of train painters such as DONDI, ZEPHYR, REVOLT, MACKIE, CRASH, SEEN, LEE, and BLADE, among other important writers. His series at the Smithsonian consists of 24 photographic prints. Graffiti being immortalized by the federal government for future generations to enjoy is something no one could have ever expected!

Turntable Used by Grandmaster Flash

Technics 1200 MK2 turntable used by Grandmaster Flash. (📷: National Museum of American History)

“I say the Bronx created it,” explained Grandmaster Flash about hip hop in an interview. “We all played a part. Herc was first, the founder. Then Bam had the most selections. And I just came up with a way to deliver the music, technically speaking. So the three of us together sort of figured it out.” Flash, also a founding member of the legendary Furious Five, helped pioneer the art of deejaying and his preferred turntable of choice, understandably, was the original gold standard: the Technics 1200, released in 1972. It quickly became the record player of choice for radio, hip hop and club DJs alike. Flash also donated an autographed set of disco-boogie records with magic marker drawn lines on that label that helped him create certain scratches, by providing him with a visual cue for a certain sound, vocal, or instrument.

Air Jordan I’s

Air Jordan I’s worn and autographed by Michael Jordan, circa 1984-85. (📷 National Museum of African American History and Culture)

Some say the Air Jordan I’s are the reason why sneaker culture is even a thing. Michael Jordan first wore them during a game in November 1984 and Nike released a model to the general public the following year for $64.95, which was pricey for the time—Converse Weapons for example, which dropped a year later, only retailed for $19.99. Despite the high cost, the sneakers created a frenzy and sold out. According to sneakerhead lore, the NBA may have helped fuel the fire by banning and fining the Rookie of the Year for wearing a black and red version of the Jordan I’s, however, it’s a colorway he never donned in an actual game, and it’s all so murky and confusing and may be another model altogether. The most likely scenario is that Nike and its advertising agency perfectly manipulated the situation to hype their new sneaker. Regardless, it worked. The above pair, which were worn and autographed by Jordan, could probably fetch over half a million dollars.

Photos of “Human Guestbook” Leotard

Model wearing Human Guestbook leotard. (📷: Ben Buchanan/Archives of American Art)

This leotard was first worn in April of 1985 by Bernard Zette, a resident drag performer at NYC’s Area nightclub. On that night, the performance artist transformed into the “Human Guestbook,” as artsy guests were encouraged to draw on the skintight suit. Jean Michel Basquiat obliged, as did Keith Haring, Dennis Oppenheim, Alex Katz, Andy Warhol, William Wegman, Ronnie Cutrone, and LeRoy Nieman. Photographer Ben Buchanan was there documenting the spectacle firsthand and decided to re-shoot the leotard over 30 years later, when he staged the above the photo shoot in 2016 with a new model.

Bag of Dirt Weed

Dirt weed officially owned by the United States of America. (📷: National Museum of American History)

Nowadays, people get menus and look at websites to order premium weed, but back in the day, everyone was good old Mexican brick and it looked a lot like the government’s stash in the photograph above. Unlike modern cannabis, this flower probably contained about 1-3% THC at the max, and had to be de-stemmed and de-seeded before it was likely smoked in a overly-glued E-Z Wider paper. Some of the early adopters of course had that Thai stick, Afghani, Hindu Kush or other landrace strains imported into the United States, otherwise dirt weed was the only other option. Luckily, after lots of experimentation in the 70s and 80s, growers in the 1990s started getting their shit together, and since then we’ve never looked back. In today’s market, if weed isn’t at least 20% THC, it ain’t getting smoked.

Stuffed War Hero Pigeon

Cher Ami immortalized. (📷: National Museum of American History)

This pigeon was a hero. Cher Ami was dispatched to the front lines of France during World War and trained by the U.S. Army Signal Corps to deliver important messages in capsules attached to their scrawny legs when field phones were inoperable. To that end, the bird carried out its last mission on October 4, 1918 when it was deployed with a correspondence warning fellow army personnel that nearly two hundred soldiers from the 77th Infantry Division were coming under friendly fire and to cut that shit out. The pithy message, authored by one Major Whittlesey, read: “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.” When Cher Ami left to carry the critical dispatch back, German troops fired on it, injuring its breast, leg and eye. Despite these injuries, the little winged warrior managed to fly 25 miles with the top secret info dangling from its nearly torn off leg. The bird’s limb was wounded so badly, it had to be amputated, but Cher Ami lived and was honored for its service. The heroic pigeon was awarded the French Croix de Guerre and returned stateside, where it passed away nearly a year later. It’s now on display, alongside canine war hero Sgt. Stubby, another beloved animal that helped fight the Germans.

First Home Video Game Console: the Brown Box

The Brown Box video game console. (📷: National Museum of American History)

You are looking at the first home video game console dubbed the Brown Box. What? Atari’s Pong isn’t the first home game system? Nope. The Brown Box was designed by engineer Ralph Baer beginning in 1966; two years later he had a working prototype—Pong came out nearly six years later. Baer eventually brought in more team members to help develop the Brown Box and in 1967, a guy named “Bill Harrison added to the project, and they began work on a ‘light gun,’ that could shoot at dots on the screen to make them disappear,” like a very primitive precursor to Duck Hunt. After RCA balked, Bear was able to strike a deal with Magnavox and in 1972, the game system was released as the Maganvox Odyssey with about a dozen games to play. That same year, a company called Atari dropped its Pong Console and it was capable of playing one game: Pong.

Oscar the Grouch

Oscar the Grouch Muppet. (📷: National Museum of American History)

Despite all conventional wisdom, Oscar the Grouch, a single, angry, 50-something Muppet who has been living in a trash can on Sesame Street since at least 1969, isn’t homeless—that’s Lilly. Unlike her, the garbage-loving furball not only has an aluminum enclosure to keep him safe from the elements, but also a massive underground lair that boasts an Olympic-sized swimming pool, an ice-skating rink, an art gallery, a pastry kitchen, and for god’s sake, a Rococo staircase. Oscar also rents, and it sounds like he has a rent controlled space, once explaining: “Well, the rent is cheap and I love trash, so I figured I would be close to it if I lived in a trash can myself. What’s wrong with that?” Live your truth, king.

Photo of Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Studio

Lee “Scratch” Perry’s legendary studio. (📷: Adrian Boot/National Museum of African American History and Culture)

You are looking at a black and white photo of Jamaican music legend Lee “Scratch” Perry’s “Black Ark” studio, which he built in his backyard to have more control of his music. It was shot by longtime photographer Adrian Boot in the mid-1970’s. Perry, a Grammy Award-winning reggae engineer and eccentric record producer, helped pioneer the instrumental/sound effects-heavy genre that would become known as dub. Nicknamed the Upsetter, he “produced more than 1000 recordings during his career” with a variety of big time talent from the original Wailers—Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston—to Max Romeo and of course his brother-in-arms Mad Professor, as well as legends across the musical spectrum, including The Clash and the Beastie Boys. He passed in August of 2021 at the age of 85. Perry once famously said: “Being a madman is good thing! It keeps people away. When they think you are crazy, they don’t come around and take your energy.”

Barbara Kruger Print

Barbara Kruger “Untitled (Know nothing, Believe anything, Forget everything)” (📷: National Gallery of Art)

Barbara Kruger, the artist who Supreme stole their entire design language from, has been creating artwork exploring themes of feminism, classicism and mass consumerism since the 1980s. The artist credits her early career in graphic design at Condé Nast Publications for helping her develop the signature style of art she’s renowned for: creating bold and pithy slogans on red backgrounds paired with found black and white images, often times produced in very large scale. In a self-narrated video that the artist did for an exhibit at LACMA, Kruger discusses how she feels about others appropriating her style: “The way my still images have traveled online, in various forms, done by myself and other people, is satisfying and amusing to me.” The artist’s work can be found in the National Gallery of Art in D.C. as well as the: Art Institute of Chicago; The Broad, Los Angeles; Fonds régional d’art contemporain (FRAC) de Bourgogne, Dijon; Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Musée d’art moderne et d’art contemporain, Nice, France; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum Ludwig, Cologne; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis; Seibu Museum of Art, Tokyo; Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York; Tate, London; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Radio Raheem’s Boombox

Boombox carried by Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing. (📷: National Museum of African American History and Culture)

Here’s Radio Raheem’s iconic Pro Max Super Jumbo from Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing. It’s by far one of the most important props from the film and true to form, the radio known for playing “Fight the Power” on loop, has Public Enemy stickers on both sides and the top, as well as red, yellow and green electrical tape along its edges. The Pro Max Super Jumbo boombox weighed in at 25 lbs and was powered by 20 D batteries… motherfucker! It’s signed in gold ink on the back and reads: “To Gene, Radio Raheem Lives, Love Spike Lee.” Apparently the director had gifted it to Gene Siskel, and years later, the legendary film critic’s estate auctioned it off for $9,375 to a private collector. It eventually made its way into the permanent collection of the the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Side note: between the sales at Bonham’s and acquisition by the Smithsonian, the Kente cloth and woven bracelets that were wrapped around the handle, have gone missing.