Undoubtedly among the most crowded places in Washington is the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Before braving the museum’s crowds, it helps to have a focus, as it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the throngs wandering through the vast halls of exhibits. Since I’ve been through the museum a number of times, I enjoyed a visit concentrating solely on Theodore Roosevelt.
The natural place to begin a T.R. hunt is in"The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden" exhibit on the third floor just off the escalator. A couple of years back several enlightened curators were given full rein in what had been a random display of presidential artifacts and gave it focus; today it’s one of the more successful displays in the museum.
The 900-some items in the exhibit illustrate how the occupants of the White House have shaped or been shaped by the office. The president’s various roles - ceremonial, military, political – are demonstrated with lively interactive exhibits. For example, a presidential podium and teleprompter are set up under bright lights next to a large monitor screen, and extroverted museum-goers can entertain others by declaiming a selected presidential speech.
Another more somber area is devoted to assassinations. Most of this display focuses on Lincoln, but there are also artifacts from the assassination attempt on Roosevelt during his 1912 "Bull Moose" campaign. T.R. was shot in the chest on the way to giving a speech, the bullet denting his metal eyeglass case and going through a folded 50-page speech he had in his breast pocket. Roosevelt insisted on going on to give the speech, standing dramatically before the crowd waving the first page of his speech rent by the bullet. "It takes more than that to kill a bull moose!" he thundered. In fact, there is good reason to believe that had his prepared speech been any shorter the bullet would have pierced his heart.
The "American Presidency" contains ample Rooseveltiana. Some of the more interesting items are merchandise, such as a "Roosevelt whistle" modeled after T.R.’s famous teeth. A nearby plaster cast of Roosevelt’s mouth makes it clear that the whistle’s dimensions are essentially correct. The most famous item associated with Roosevelt was, of course, the Teddy bear. One of the earliest teddies, made by the Ideal Toy Company, is on display, along with a T.R. "Rough Rider" doll. Among Roosevelt’s personal effects are the folding desk he used during his African travels and a pair of chaps he wore on his ranch in the Dakota Territory. And, as TR was the first president to be filmed, there are flickering images of him chopping down trees around the White House in the media section.
Near the exhibit’s exit a vast museum shop contains just about every presidential key-chain, tea-towel, postcard, or do-dad ever produced, including T.R. barbecue sauce and T.R. Christmas ornaments. Happily, there’s also a fine selection of books by and about T.R. Oh, and uh, there are lots of books on those other forty-two guys as well.