National Treasures

In The Object at Hand, Beth Py-Lieberman ’83 tells America’s story via the Smithsonian collection.

Book cover of The Object at Hand

Py-Lieberman examines an iconic airplane, an artist’s love letter, and a storied stone.

Did you know that the Hope Diamond, perhaps the world’s most prized and priceless jewel, once hung around the neck of a 20th-century socialite’s dog? Do you know where you can find both Chuck Berry’s red 1973 Cadillac Eldorado and Dorothy’s ruby-red slippers? In The Object at Hand: Intriguing and Inspiring Stories from the Smithsonian Collections, Beth Py-Lieberman ’83 shares tales and tidbits that piece together a complex American history.

While Py-Lieberman’s collection of 86 artifacts is only about 0.00005 percent of the Smithsonian’s collection of more than 150 million, it is representative. Some of her highlights are a love letter from artist Frida Kahlo to her husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera, the plane in which Amelia Earhart made her historic solo flight across the Atlantic, a panel from the AIDS Memorial Quilt that honors activist Roger Gail Lyon, a Bible belonging to preacher and rebellion leader Nat Turner, and the life-sized model of a megalodon shark that looms above diners in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

In delving into more detail than museum placards allow and organizing the artifacts by themes, Py-Lieberman’s book is elevated from a mere catalog of the Smithsonian’s collection to an anthology of interconnected histories.

“From priceless treasures to simple ephemera, these selections prove that in a hectic, digital world, it is still the humble object that has the power to transport us on journeys of the imagination,” writes New York Times best-selling author Geraldine Brooks.

Py-Lieberman is a senior editor of museums for Smithsonian magazine online and has been with the magazine for more than 30 years.

Published in the Spring 2024 issue


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