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Obama mementos sought for African American history museum

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As hundreds of thousands of sets of eyes fixed on Jumbotrons, platforms and parade routes to catch the inaugural pageantry Monday, two other sets of eyes watched the people watching Obama.

Curators from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture scoured the crowd looking for those standout images and symbols they might want for their Obama collection, which now has about 300 artifacts. They looked for the often handmade shows of connection and support, and the myriad ways the 44th president permeates the culture.

History curator William Pretzer roamed the south side of the Mall near the Hirshhorn Museum, and culture curator Elaine Nichols stayed on the north side, near the Newseum. They would spot someone with a crocheted Obama hat or Obama earrings featuring a super-reduced photo of the president, and ask if they could have the item outright, or hand out cards that urged the wearer to get in touch with the museum if they wished to donate.

“We’re pretty much following the same kind of track that we followed in 2008,” Pretzer says. The museum wants to capture Obama’s “public persona, the appeal to the public via the campaign and his celebration by the electorate.”

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, scheduled to open in 2015, will feature the Obama collection as part of a history gallery that spans 1968 to 2008. Curators began collecting artifacts after Obama’s 2008 Democratic nomination, and they aren’t sure how many items they’ll end up with.

There’s a blue bedsheet they got from a woman in New Haven, Conn., who painted a poem — the author identified only as a 19-year-old single mother from Mc­Keesport, Pa. — on it in white letters: “Rosa sat so Martin could walk, Martin walked so Obama could run, Obama is running so our children can fly!”

There’s the Tanzanian kanga cloth with congratulations to Obama written in Kiswahili that was acquired in 2010. And in 2011, a woman donated an overcoat made from recycled campaign door hangers, fliers and brochures.

Curator Michele Gates-Moresi says a lot of the collection has focused on new language and ideas sparked by Obama and “how that’s manifesting in the material culture.” She has been in touch with a man who paints Obama images to order on sneakers. The day after the 2008 election, Gates-Moresi cleaned out the contents of an Obama campaign office in Falls Church.

Years from now, the museum will be able to show “what that office looked like, who worked there, their schedules, the way they organized this grass-roots campaign, posters, handbills,” Pretzer says.

Monday, Nichols collected some commercial artifacts, mostly buttons and posters from 2008, newly stamped 2012, but says she found the hand-crafted items most interesting. These were personal statements of support for the president, and the people who had them “were not willing to part with those items,” Nichols says. When a friend who was part of a busload from Charlotte called her, Nichols urged her to ask people to donate their bus passes, or to take a picture in front of the bus and send it to the museum. “She got really excited about that. She said, ‘For sure, you can have my ticket.’ ”

The museum’s founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch, says he hasn’t secured any items for the collection — unless you count the Obama sign he swiped from a neighbor’s front yard — but he knows what it’s like trying to get people to donate.

It’s important to remember “that museums don’t only look back, they have to look forward. You have to collect for 50 years from now so [curators] can tell the story of today.”

That can be tough when the event is the second inauguration of a history-making president. That’s why people have a tough time donating, Bunch says. “The more personal the object, the more attached it is to a special event, the harder it is for the person to give it up.”

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