Experiencing America: A Smithsonian Tour through American History

In partnership with
Professor Richard Kurin, Ph.D.
The Smithsonian
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Course No. 8576
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What Will You Learn?

  • Unlock the mysteries of history with the repository of America's achievements and identity: the Smithsonian.
  • Unearth artifacts from before the founding of the American colonies to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
  • Get a behind-the-scenes look at some of the Smithsonian's most amazing treasures.
  • Learn the true story of incredible historical artifacts, from George Washington's uniform to Neil Armstrong's spacesuit.
  • See maps, portraits, recordings, videos, and demonstration models that tell America's grand story.
  • Explore 20 authentic historic objects, as well as more than 100 replicas and photographs.

Course Overview

The Smithsonian is a repository of America’s history, achievements, aspirations, and identity. It holds the artifacts of great leaders, and those of ordinary Americans. It houses scientific specimens and technological wonders. It is home to art, music, films, writings—a vast treasure trove of objects of extraordinary beauty and outstanding design. With a collection of some 137 million items in more than two dozen museums and research centers, the Smithsonian brings our national epic to life as nothing else can.

Consider these examples of its riches:

  • George Washington’s simple but elegant army uniform and sword;
  • Thomas Jefferson’s Bible, which he compiled by hand so he could study the Gospels in four different languages;
  • The chairs where Generals Lee and Grant sat when they concluded the surrender that ended the Civil War;
  • Jacqueline Kennedy’s stunning silk gown, worn at the inaugural balls for President John F. Kennedy; and
  • The spacesuit that protected Neil Armstrong when he took his “one small step” on the Moon.

Such outstanding holdings are the reason a tour of the Smithsonian museums is an American tradition—a pilgrimage made by 31 million visitors every year. They come to be enthralled, to be moved, and above all to learn—motivated by the institution’s mission to promote the increase and diffusion of knowledge.

That worthy goal is also the purpose of The Great Courses, and it has inspired a unique partnership: The Great Courses and the Smithsonian are collaborating to bring the Smithsonian museums to you. In an unprecedented move, curators have taken objects out of their cases and brought them to our lecture room to give you special access to treasures that collectively represent the American experience.

Experiencing America: A Smithsonian Tour through American History showcases 20 authentic historic objects along with detailed replicas and photographs of almost 100 other artifacts and exhibits. Together, these evocative items tell the story of America, its people, and its diverse cultures in 24 lavishly illustrated half-hour lectures.

Your guide is the distinguished scholar, administrator, and bestselling author, Dr. Richard Kurin, Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture at the Smithsonian. Among his many responsibilities, Dr. Kurin oversees most of the Smithsonian’s national museums, libraries, and archives, making him the curator of the country’s greatest treasures—and the ideal host for this remarkable survey.

A History Course Like No Other

In addition to historic objects, Experiencing America includes maps, portraits, recordings, videos, and demonstration models. The result is an American history course like no other. Along with history, you get a behind-the-scenes look at the work of curators, conservators, and other professionals who are preserving our nation’s heritage.

Experiencing America is ideal preparation for anyone planning to visit the Smithsonian. And for those who can’t make the trip, this course brings the Smithsonian to you, providing an immensely rewarding twelve-hour journey through the past. It starts more than 15,000 years ago with some of the oldest human artifacts found in North America. Your tour continues to Plymouth Rock, the Pacific Northwest with Lewis and Clark, the Moon and back, and even to the Land of Oz, thanks to Dorothy’s famous ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 movie.

The showpieces of the course are a selection of original artifacts, which Dr. Kurin presents after donning a pair of archival gloves. These historic treasures include:

  • Star-Spangled Banner: Dr. Kurin shows and discusses a fragment of the renowned flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem. The original flag measured 30 by 42 feet and is now on display at the National Museum of American History.
  • Slave shackles: The new National Museum of African American History and Culture has a pair of iron shackles that were used to restrain enslaved Africans on their ocean passage to America. The set held by Dr. Kurin is unusually small because it was worn by a child.
  • Bell telephone: Dr. Kurin demonstrates how an early cup-shaped telephone was used as a transmitter by speaking into it and as a receiver by then holding it to the ear. Along with many other inventions, it resides in the National Museum of American History.
  • Sitting Bull's drawing book: The victorious Indian chief at the Battle of Little Big Horn made a book of drawings that depict his deeds as a warrior. This fascinating set of sketches is housed at the National Museum of Natural History.
  • Apollo 8 glove: The first humans to travel beyond Earth’s orbit were the three astronauts who orbited the Moon aboard Apollo 8 in 1968. Dr. Kurin shows a spacesuit glove worn by one of them. It resides in the National Air and Space Museum.

And Dr. Kurin brings out more than a dozen other original items, each telling an exceptional story.

Nearly Limitless Treasures

Many people are surprised by the number of facilities that comprise the Smithsonian—from the museums lining the National Mall, such as American History, Natural History, American Indian, Air and Space, and African American History; to those beyond, including the National Portrait Gallery, National Zoo, American Art Museum, and the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Experiencing America draws on all of these resources and more. For example, from the National Museum of American History, you focus on such items as these:

  • Sutter’s Mill gold flake: Weighing less than 0.09g, this tiny gold flake found at a California sawmill in 1848 launched the California Gold Rush—a great wave of migration that opened a momentous new chapter of American history.
  • Lincoln’s hat: Our tallest president, Abraham Lincoln, liked to wear a stovepipe hat that increased his height even more. Tragically, the hat in the Smithsonian’s collection was worn by Lincoln on the night of his assassination at Ford’s Theater.
  • Bugle from USS Maine: The Spanish-American War was incited by the mysterious explosion of the U.S. warship Maine in Havana harbor in 1898. Among the recovered artifacts, the Smithsonian has a bugle, possibly the one playing “Taps” moments before the blast.
  • Berlin Wall fragment: The Cold War that pitted the Soviet bloc against the democratic West lasted from 1945 until 1989, when the symbol of communist tyranny, the Berlin Wall, was dismantled by protestors. The Smithsonian has a piece.
  • Julia Child’s kitchen: When renowned chef Julia Child retired in 2001, the Smithsonian acquired her kitchen—sink and all! The meticulously recreated room is popular with cooking enthusiasts, who admire its well-equipped but homey character.

From the National Museum of Natural History, you learn the story of Martha, the last surviving passenger pigeon, who died in 1914. You also chart the glittering career of the Hope Diamond, which arrived at the Smithsonian in 1958 inside an ordinary U.S. Mail parcel like the one Dr. Kurin proudly displays.

He also shows Marian Anderson’s mink coat, which is in the collection of the Anacostia Community Museum. A virtuoso African-American singer, Anderson wore the coat for a celebrated 1939 performance that took place on the National Mall when she was denied a concert hall in segregated Washington, D.C. You also see portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, including those of Pocahontas, George Washington, and Frederick Douglass.

Among the objects you explore from the National Museum of the American Indian is a towering totem pole carved by a contemporary Native American artist. And you discover that the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum on Manhattan’s upper east side is itself an artifact—the mansion of steel baron turned philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

The treasures are almost limitless, and so is the deeper insight you gain into American history. But the most moving moment in Experiencing America comes when Dr. Kurin turns to relics from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The objects include a crash-scarred logbook owned by a flight attendant aboard one of the hijacked airliners; the crumpled door of a New York City fire engine, found in the rubble of the World Trade Center; and a fireman’s crowbar, also recovered from the site.

“Simple object, but part of a big story,” reflects Dr. Kurin. “And when you’re in intimate proximity to one of these objects, as I am now, you have a link to that sweeping story. History is not distant. It’s not a stranger.”

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24 lectures
 |  Average 32 minutes each
  • 1
    The Star-Spangled Banner - Inspiring the Anthem
    Begin your tour of national treasures from the Smithsonian with the artifact that inspired our national anthem: the flag that flew over Fort McHenry when Francis Scott Key penned “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Hear about the battle for the fort and the later history of the flag, including how it was almost “loved to death.” x
  • 2
    Presidents and Generals - Images of Leadership
    Learn how some of the country’s greatest leaders have seen themselves and been seen by the nation. Inspect Washington’s uniform, swords, and portraits. Also look at notable photographs of Lincoln, and trace the history of Eisenhower’s distinctive army jacket and his presidential “look.” x
  • 3
    Conscience and Conflict - Religious History
    View Smithsonian artifacts that tell the story of the quest for religious freedom in America - from a rare religious portrait from the colonial Southwest, to a chunk of Plymouth Rock, to Thomas Jefferson’s unique compilation of the Gospels, to the symbolic sunstone on the original Mormon Temple in Nauvoo, Illinois. x
  • 4
    The Growth and Spread of Slavery
    Starting with a set of slave shackles, chart the history of slavery in the Americas. Discover how the invention of the cotton gin helped expand slave labor. Then follow the story of African-American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, as told through some of her treasured personal belongings. x
  • 5
    Emancipation and the Civil War
    Study relics and documents related to the emancipation of slaves during the Civil War era, culminating with General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Also hear poignant stories told by a selection of artifacts from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. x
  • 6
    Gold, Guns, and Grandeur - The West
    Hear the tale told by a tiny gold flake, smaller than a fingernail, which launched the California Gold Rush in the late 1840s. Encounter another artifact that had a profound impact on the West: the Colt revolver. And view the West through the eyes of both settlers and natives in the art of Albert Bierstadt and the sketches from Sitting Bull’s drawing book. x
  • 7
    The First Americans - Then and Now
    Inspect stone points produced at the end of the last ice age by the Clovis culture of early hunter-gatherers in the Americas. Then probe the mystery of the birdman carving found in an ancient Native American burial mound. See how tribal traditions continue to inspire Indian artists. x
  • 8
    Planes, Trains, Automobiles and Wagons
    Examine four key artifacts that tell the story of America on the move: the Conestoga wagon; the John Bull steam locomotive; the Ford Model T; and Charles Lindbergh’s airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis. Each represents a technology that profoundly altered the nation. x
  • 9
    Communications - From Telegraph to Television
    Focus on inventions that radically transformed how people communicate, beginning with Samuel Morse’s telegraph. Then look at a historic telephone used by Alexander Graham Bell, and listen to one of his early recording disks. Finally, witness the birth of mass media through the inventions of radio and television. x
  • 10
    Immigrant Dreams and Immigrant Struggles
    Investigate objects linked to the experiences of America’s immigrants: an original model of the Statue of Liberty, a painting highlighting the injustice of internment for Japanese Americans during World War II, and two artifacts connected to Caesar Chavez and his battle for the rights of Mexican-American farm workers. x
  • 11
    User Friendly - Democratizing Technology
    The Singer sewing machine, the Kodak Brownie camera, and the Apple Macintosh computer each exemplify the transformative effects of functionality and good design. View early models of these pioneering inventions, and explore the social revolutions they set in motion. x
  • 12
    Extinction and Conservation
    The Smithsonian’s many facilities include the National Zoo and its living collections. Focus on four animals’ stories that shed light on extinction and conservation of species in America: Sandy the buffalo, Tioga the bald eagle, Martha the passenger pigeon, and a pair of pandas - Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling. x
  • 13
    Kitty Hawk to Tranquility - Innovation and Flight
    Review the rich tradition of innovation in America. Then zero in on two remarkable achievements: the Wright brothers’ airplane and the Apollo flights to the Moon. View an actual astronaut glove worn on Apollo 8, the first mission to orbit the Moon. x
  • 14
    Cold War - Red Badges, Bombs, and the Berlin Wall
    Survey selected Smithsonian artifacts that capture the trajectory of the Cold War - from a 1930s patriotic union badge worn by labor leader John L. Lewis, to the Enola Gay bomber that ended World War II, to a 1950s fallout shelter and a piece of the shattered Berlin Wall. x
  • 15
    National Tragedy - Maine, Pearl Harbor & 9/11
    Nothing speaks more powerfully than an object that has weathered tragedy. Look at simple, eloquent relics from the explosion of USS Maine in 1898, the sinking of USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. x
  • 16
    For the Greater Good - Public Health
    Guided by key artifacts at the Smithsonian, see how grassroots efforts, social activism, and the care and determination of the American people helped fund a cure for polio, led to birth control for women, and combatted the bias against those with AIDS. x
  • 17
    Women Making History
    Explore the struggle for an inclusive role for women in American society. Chart the history of the women’s suffrage movement; witness Helen Keller’s miraculous story; follow Amelia Earhart’s heartbreaking career in the air; and get a glimpse into Julia Child’s life as a television pioneer and cultural icon. x
  • 18
    The Power of Portraits
    Peer into powerful faces from the past, including those of Pocahontas, Frederick Douglass, and the female factory worker apocryphally known as Rosie the Riveter, who appears on an iconic poster from World War II. Also inspect another icon: the signature stovepipe hat worn by Abraham Lincoln. x
  • 19
    Two Centuries of American Style
    Delve into examples of American style, starting with Benjamin Franklin’s cane and Andrew Carnegie’s innovative New York mansion (now itself a Smithsonian museum). Then view memorabilia from Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, and Louis Armstrong. Close with Jacqueline Kennedy’s simple but stunning inaugural gown. x
  • 20
    Hollywood - The American Myth Machine
    The Smithsonian has been farsighted in acquiring artifacts from America’s modern myth machine: Hollywood. View some prime specimens - from the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz to the costumes for the robotic sidekicks in Star Wars. x
  • 21
    The Hope Diamond - America's Crown Jewel
    Follow the saga of the Hope Diamond, which has led a storied career since it was mined in India in the 1600s. Learn about its alleged curse and the unusual way it arrived at the Smithsonian in 1958, where it has remained a perennially popular exhibit. x
  • 22
    Sing Out for Justice - American Music
    Americans have always blended politics and song. Trace the rise of three great voices in this tradition: Marian Anderson, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan. Among other touchstones of their era, see the mink coat that Anderson wore at a celebrated concert on the National Mall in 1939. x
  • 23
    Exploring the Land, Exploring the Universe
    Cross the expanse of the continent with Lewis and Clark, then leap into space with the Mercury, Apollo, and Space Shuttle programs. Discover how Smithsonian scientists will continue exploring the limits of the cosmos with the Giant Magellan Telescope. x
  • 24
    All Men Are Created Equal - Civil Rights
    Close the course by returning to the Declaration of Independence and its pledge that “all men are created equal.” Trace the struggle to realize this promise from the turmoil of Reconstruction to a lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., site of sit-ins during the Civil Rights era, and now on display at - where else? - the Smithsonian. x

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What's Included

What Does Each Format Include?

Video DVD
Video Download Includes:
  • Ability to download 24 video lectures from your digital library
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 272-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 272-page course synopsis
  • Portraits & illustrations
  • List of featured objects
  • Suggested readings

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Your professor

Richard Kurin

About Your Professor

Richard Kurin, Ph.D.
The Smithsonian
Dr. Richard Kurin is the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. In this position, he oversees most of the Smithsonian’s national museums, libraries, and archives, as well as several of its research and outreach programs. Dr. Kurin holds a B.A. in Anthropology and Philosophy from the University at Buffalo—The State University of New York. He earned both his M.A. and his Ph.D. in Anthropology...
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Reviews

Experiencing America: A Smithsonian Tour through American History is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 47.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very interesting Knowing little of American History I am enjoying this introduction.
Date published: 2018-08-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Comprehensive and interesting survey I'm about half way through the course, and I find it a comprehensive and interesting review of various topics in American History, and the use of Smithsonian artifacts is enlightening (although I would have been pleased with more time with the artifacts with a voiceover lecture!). I expected something more like the BBC's A History of the World in 100 Objects, which focused on the artifacts and slipped in the history, while this course focuses on the history and illustrates with artifacts. So I was a bit disappointed, but that was more because of my (false) expectations than any problem with the course.
Date published: 2018-07-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very interesting Great to watch after having been to the Smithsonian museums many times and taking out of town guests
Date published: 2018-04-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Just like a tour at the Smithsonian Sat down to watch this with family and nobody wanted it turned off. Great and educational
Date published: 2018-04-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Trip preparation We used this course to get ready for a 16 day trip to Washington DC with our nine and eleven year old children. We watched these videos together with the kids and it got them so excited about our trip. Once in DC they were able to draw from what they had learned in this course. This course surely enriched our museum going experience in DC and provided a great education. Thank you!
Date published: 2018-01-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Enhanced with many photos I'm really sorry that they weren't actually at the museum, but realize that the lighting needed for filming was not good for the artifacts. Enjoyed all the extra photos which explained the material fully. Saw many of these items on my last visit but this gave me a more in depth understanding.
Date published: 2017-07-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing!!!!!!!! I had reservations when i first bought this course, but, they quickly disappeared. The professors are fully knowledgable on the subject, the presentation is gorgeous, and the information is quickly absorbed. I am a very happy life learner with the Great Courses Plus. WTG Guys!!!
Date published: 2017-07-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Narration! Wish it privided some walk through the museum as it relates to the era. Not yet able to visit the Museum!
Date published: 2017-07-13
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