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Smithsonian Unveils New 'American Stories' Exhibit

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A jar made by a former slave in South Carolina serves as part of the section on slavery in the new "American Stories" exhibit at the National Museum of American History.
Courtesy of National Museum of American History
A jar made by a former slave in South Carolina serves as part of the section on slavery in the new "American Stories" exhibit at the National Museum of American History.

A new exhibit called American Stories officially opens today at the National Museum of American History. The exhibit aims to provide a chronological overview of American history using objects and stories that from the museum's existing collections, according to Bill Yeingst.

In one case near the beginning of that chronology is a big piece of granite inside a plexiglass case. It's a piece of Plymouth Rock, the Massachusetts site said to be the site of the Pilgrims' landing. 

Whether or not they landed right there is still in question, however. "There's no record until 1700s of the rock when it became a symbol of American independence," says exhibit curator Bonnie Lillianfeld. 

Near the rock is a shell necklace made of wampum, shell beads that were used as currency by Native Americans an settlers alike. "It allows us to tell a complex story of the interactions between the Native Americans and the settlers who came here," Lillianfeld says.

Other areas of the exhibit, including a ship manifest from 1833, call up more painful chapters in U.S. history. The manifest, which is on a scroll that's about 2.5 feet long, includes the names of slaves listed among the ship's cargo.   

"This is an amazing survival," Yeingst says. "What's remarkable is that it lists 83 enslaved individuals by name and description. They were a cargo being shipped from Alexandria, Virginia down to the deep south." 

Another remembrance of U.S. slavery lies nearby, with an enormous earthenware jar signed "David Drake." 

Explains Lillianfeld: "It's a magnificent piece, one of our treasures. It records the life of one specific slave, David Drake, who worked as a potter in Edgefield, S.C. before the Civil War.

"He was amazingly allowed to sign and date most of his wares, on some he even wrote original two-line couplets," continues Lillianfeld. "This one says, "I made this jar, all of cross, if you don't repent, you will be lost." 

The exhibit opens today and will be on view indefinitely. 

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