Experiencing America: A Smithsonian Tour through American History

In partnership with
Professor Richard Kurin, Ph.D.
The Smithsonian
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4.4 out of 5
47 Reviews
85% of reviewers would recommend this product
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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  • Download 24 video lectures to your computer or mobile app
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  • 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?

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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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Experiencing America: A Smithsonian Tour through American History is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 47.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Unique American History Course Every single lecture in this course was interesting. Most covered two or three different artifacts from the Smithsonian collections, using them to tell important stories. Each lecture was extremely well written. At first I thought I was going to have trouble getting used to the narrator's somewhat scratchy voice, but I quickly got used to his delivery. It is not a linear discussion of US history, but rather a topical approach. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in history. Even if you already know a lot, you will learn a few new things, and any future visits to the Smithsonian museums will be enhanced.
Date published: 2017-06-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A good start I have visited the Smithsonian several times so I was familiar with some of the objects in this tour. I thought that this is a good start for some one who has not had the benefit of visiting Washington DC and the Smithsonian museums. There needs to be a follow up course on some of the more obscure objects of our history.
Date published: 2017-05-25
Rated 3 out of 5 by from It was alright Although the history lessons are very interesting, I thought there would be more inside the Smithsonian shown and a tour of it.
Date published: 2017-01-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wow! Just about half way through the course and I've discovered so many interesting answers to questions I've had about many of the artifacts at the Smithsonian!
Date published: 2016-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Presentation on American History Excellent presentation with very unique visual aids from the Smithsonian. Great professor, covered many topics and again the visual aids where outstanding.
Date published: 2016-10-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from American History Outstanding course, I really enjoy history & visiting historical sites. This course is the next best thing to being there.
Date published: 2016-08-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History vividly presented Each lesson uses an object from the Smithsonian collection as a starting point for a presentation on U.S. histroy. I have viewed or listened to several of the lessons since I purchased the course. I find there is much I did not know or know in detail. Much of the content is moving to me as an American. I enjoy watching when I can, but the audio stands on its own and I have listened to the audio alone while otherwise busy. It is very convenient to download a course and view/listen at one's convenience even when a DVD player or wifi are not available.
Date published: 2016-08-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Delightful The design of this course was exactly what I'd hoped. Valuable snippets of Americans can history told through artifacts found at the Smithsonian. The instructor was not only informative but passionate about each of the artifacts and associated backstory. Certainly not comprehensive by any means but extremely enjoyable.
Date published: 2016-02-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Combination Who can argue the fact that the Smithsonian is a great institution and does an excellent job in almost all they do. Combine that with the great work The Great Courses does and you obviously have a winning combination. I would advise all to add this course to their collection. It is fascinating and done in a very good presentation format
Date published: 2016-02-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Preparation for a Planned Trip I decided to take this course after planning to take a long overdue trip to see the Smithsonian. The professor was incredibly energetic and clearly enjoyed the subject matter. This is one of the better produced Great Courses that I have seen and has more (and better) video and graphics. The professor also does a great job of weaving significant amounts of American history into each lecture. Each lesson focuses on a particular topic, such as voyages of exploration, transportation or industry. Each lesson starts at an early point in American history and works toward more modern events, staying with the theme for the entire lesson. For instance, for the lesson regarding exploration, the professor starts with the Lewis and Clark Expedition (featuring a compass in the museum's collection) and ends with the Apollo Space Program (featuring Apollo 11 in the collection). There were two exceptions to this pattern: the very first lesson focusing on the Star Spangled Banner and later lesson focusing on the Hope Diamond. These lessons were both outstanding, particularly the Hope Diamond lesson. I thought I would not be that interested in the Hope Diamond, and I had planned to skip the Museum of Natural History since my planned visit is relatively short. I now plan to make time to see the Hope Diamond after hearing about its amazing history. This course really helped plan my visit. I highly recommend this for anyone interested in planning a trip to the Smithsonian or who just wants to learn about American history in a unique way.
Date published: 2016-02-02
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Expected more Great idea! Having first visited Washington, DC, in May 2014 and some of the museums, I guess I was expecting so much more to be packed into this course. It wasn't a waste of time, and it does give you a glimpse into what the Smithsonian offers but it kind of fell short for me. Would have liked the delivery picked up a little, and more items presented. The story behind each item is fascinating, but as a "tour", wished they could have been summarized a bit more to allow more of a tour.
Date published: 2016-02-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loved this We are planning to go to the Smithsonian later this spring, and bought this course as preparation. It will be invaluable for our enjoyment. Dr. Kurin is a wonderful enthusiastic presenter and puts the objects in great context. Thanks!
Date published: 2016-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History brought to life This professor is so interesting! I was never much into history in school. I watched him spell bound. Now I want to go to the Smithsonian to see these items in person. Well done!!!
Date published: 2016-01-23
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Left Wing Blame America This is just a blame The United States for its treatment of minorities and native americans propaganda.
Date published: 2016-01-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A bit disappointed I must say that this is based only on having watched one lesson, but having looked at the titles of all of the upcoming lessons. So the jury is still out. I will keep this course and hope for the best, but I must say that the mannerisms of the professor are a bit off-putting. As for the content of the one chapter that I watched, I was disappointed, but that is just me. I will hope for a better fit with my interests with other chapters.
Date published: 2016-01-21
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Do you believe in magic... I have taken over 200 courses with The Great Courses. I first taught middle school in 1971, then high school. I moved on to higher education and attained a Full Professorship, which I held for 27 years. In addition, I have written over 10 degree programs for major higher educational institutions and state systems. So, I have some familiarity in the field of teaching/education. I am also a Johns Hopkins graduate. History and attaching truth to stories is one of the oldest professions in the world, probably the oldest. We all know of the others. It is said that historic fact is determined by the winners, not the losers of man's exploits. Stated another way history is tainted by all sorts of tangential influences, and many not altruistic. This course suffers from such shortcomings. While the lecturer appears to be very knowledgeable and anchored in his craft, he is a tainted soul (with a credibility issue) who depends on his livelihood from a government organization that demands a favorable outcome. One might say his job depends on it. He is a part of the U.S. Government complex which has political ambitions and singular points-of-view. If you have lived long enough on this planet and are an aware being, you must have noticed many incongruities in the way news is reported. In many instances reporters right on the scene of a happening, have varying views about what had actually happened, or, what/how to report (in) the "news." If eyewitnesses trained to observe events that occur right before their eyes can have a varied, different opinions of the "truth" of an event, then, how can a man who is out of his convention of time report history as fact through an object… an inanimate object that witnesses not a single solitary thing about its surroundings. The word "spin" comes to mind as I write this short essay. Did I tell you that my first field of study, and career of employment, was located on the island of Manhattan on Madison Avenue, NYC. I was a "Mad Man" in advertising in the late 1960s. I was trained (and hold a degree in media arts/advertising) to sell anything to anyone, anything to anyone... got the picture. Usually they are items/services a normal human being, in right mind, would never purchase, unless their psychology was breached. Remember the saying in advertising, "sXX sells." It is not just a saying, but a truism in advertising. Advertisers attach inanimate objects to your feelings, which are governed by chemical hormones influencing basic, human behavioral psychology. Anybody can be manipulated and deceived into believing red is green, or yellow is blue. In fact, they would probably swear to it in a court of law, under the right circumstances. Magicians are professional deceivers and illusionists. Is a picture being painted in your mind… yet. Most of the stories in this course, while entertaining, are fiction at best. And, just like the image of Lewis and Clark's Indian princess on the silver coin is fake (and it was stated so in the course, to be fair here) the whole historic value to the student trying to grasp the real history of the United States is suspect. While I did find the lecturer to be pleasant and a good public speaker, the content of the course lacked truth, real depth, and value for Americans trying to understand their true heritage. "Spin" is all around us today. It comes in many forms and sizes. It can be quit harmless, or it can be used to steal the freedom from a citizenry. Be very careful what you believe to be the truth when trying to understand facts. Remember, I can get you to think that red is really green, and yellow is really blue, if I decide to do so. In fact that is the way the mind perceives those colors. So red is green and yellow is blue. Look it up. Thanks for reading my short critique of this course. Now, go out and apply what I just told you to your own life and everything presented to you daily. Just say to yourself and apply these few prefaces to what you hear about news, facts, and history: Who is speaking this truth (their position, too); who do they work for; what do they have to gain by you believing such a story; and who paid for it. It is that simple to live an informed life.
Date published: 2015-12-26
Rated 3 out of 5 by from The very model of a modern museum Let's get something out of the way, this is not a college history course. This is a museum curator telling stories about American history, technology, disasters and oppression viewed wherever possible though the eyes of minorities and women. The portrait gallery episode is a good example of the standard breakdown. We view Pocahontas, Fredrick Douglas, Abe Lincoln and Rosie the Riveter. Neither historian nor art critic would have chosen these four from the thousands of available options. For a museum ambassador choosing a minority woman, an African American, a President and a cultural icon make perfect sense. Once you adjust to the reality of this perspective in a series of five to ten minute stories rather than longer form lectures, this is a sporadically enjoyable course. The narrator can be a riveting storyteller as he spins tales of America and illustrating them with pictures of artifacts and occasionally artifacts themselves. This is as good a multimedia presentation as the Great Courses has yet produced filled with pictures, maps, graphics and occasionally film clips. The stories themselves tend toward the negative which can get a bit depressing, but they are stories worth knowing. Sometimes you just wish America had actually uplifted someone through a means beyond fashion or film by say saving the World for Democracy three times in the 20th century defeating the twin monsters of fascism and communism. I guess asking a country to do that would be asking too much. This is a history course for non-historians and folks interested in the history of oppressed peoples from African Americans to Native Americans to Female Americans to Mormon Americans to Gay Americans to Mexican Americans. For a less biased but more compelling look at African American History try Turning Points in American History. Weaving the experiences of slaves and their descendents as one of the many threads of American history made the story much more poignant. Frankly I cried at points during that course, while this one just irritated me with its bias.
Date published: 2015-07-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Experiencing America through Iconic Artifacts The collaboration of the Teaching Company and the Smithsonian Institution is a match made in heaven. This tour through the Smithsonian is a journey back in our nation's history. Many of the artifacts I was unfamiliar with or wasn't aware the museum owned: Harriet Tubman's hymnal book, the droids from Star Wars, Sitting Bull’s Drawing Book, Kodak Brownie Camera, the Enola Gay, Julia Child’s Kitchen, and Kermit the Frog. Other are more well known to me like the Hope Diamond, Star Spangled Banner, and Dorothy's Ruby Slippers. Each of them had such a fascinating history attached to me. I imaging that choosing the artifacts to feature on the course had not been an easy decision. I would have loved it if Dr. Kurin had brought some of the artifacts into the studio to share. But of course, for security reasons, they could not be removed from their exhibits. I would say that I gained a lot more knowledge in watching this course. It made me look at certain aspects of American history in a new light and the people who owned them. I look forward to what new courses the Smithsonian and the Teaching Company will do together.
Date published: 2015-06-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Smithsonian Overview and History Refresher I'm not sure when I'll get to the Smithsonian, but in the meantime I have this great series to tell me what's there. Love the perfect length of each segment, the descriptions, the context given, all of it.
Date published: 2015-03-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A gratifying education I had a lot of questions prior to getting into this course, but they were answered as each class started and ended. Watching the clock while in my college classes were nothing compared to these courses, shown on four disks, the classes were fast and educational. The professor is professional and courteous throughout and doesn't sound like a drone as some college classes can be. I appreciated the time The Great Courses put all this together. You will be surprised at the amount of content here. The Smithsonian is my first class, so I can't recommend another class that I haven't experienced, but I look forward in getting into more lessons to be learned in the many other courses mentioned in their catalog.
Date published: 2015-02-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Relates Smithsonian Items to History Richard Kurin does a good job of putting items from the Smithsonian into their historical context. Kurin is not an expert on every era, but he explains why each item is important. I have not been to the Smithsonian in a long time, and this class makes me want to go to the Smithsonian for an extended visit.
Date published: 2015-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course I loved this course the professor was engaging and clear if you like american history purchase this course
Date published: 2015-01-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoyable I bought this for my sister to view as she recovered from a surgical procedure. She reports that it is very informative and that she is truly enjoying all the interesting facts contained in the lectures heretofore unknown to her. She also said she likes the fact it is in 30 minute increments, so it fills in the time between therapy etc. I will probably try a course myself. There are several that sound very interesting to me. There is no reason to stop learning and I think the Great Courses concept is very good for those of us who feel that way.
Date published: 2014-11-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History With a Human Touch In this survey of famous historical objects, our tour guide is Dr. Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. Each lecture examines priceless Americana from the Smithsonian’s unprecedented collection of historical artifacts. There are fascinating behind-the-scenes stories about such topics as the two chairs used by Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Lee sat in the more comfortable chair, and apparently Grant didn’t mind! This is one of the historical excursions that provide a human dimension to history. In production values, there was a creative configuration of the studio space to resemble a museum. The excellent camera work provided close-ups on the precious objects while the extremely clear maps and computer graphic images enhanced every one of the lectures. Kudos to The Great Courses’ production team! As a scholar-lecturer, Dr. Kurin has a commanding presence on camera, and he provides thorough coverage of the selected objects. The background in each program was successful in placing even the most mundane object in its proper historical context. From the origin of the Star Spangled Banner to the Spirit of St. Louis, the course offered a thoughtful introduction to American history through objects that have survived the ravages of time. It was a special treat to have an immediate and direct experience from the collection of one of our most revered institutions. The course demonstrates that museums can be both fun and educational, especially when there is the human touch. COURSE GRADE: A
Date published: 2014-11-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of My Favorite Courses History comes alive in this fantastic course. I anticipated every lecture and was inspired to do additional reading about the topics covered. As a citizen of the US, I was thrilled to learn more about the rich history of my country. The professor's presentation was marvelous. (I'm a professor myself, so I found his presentation style very engaging and learned much from it.) This course is an excellent family activity because it is interesting to a wide age range of students. It's unfortunate that history courses have become a political battleground, as noted in some other reviews. The material presented in this course is highly accurate and engaging. I immediately ordered the Great Courses/ Smithsonian course on the Industrial Revolution and look forward to studying it.
Date published: 2014-11-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A tantalizing introduction to the Smithsonian The subtitle of this course -- "A Smithsonian Tour through American History" -- is accurate. Given the vast amount of material in the Smithsonian's several museums, and the depths of America's political, social, and cultural history, it had to be difficult to select just which elements would be utilized in this all too brief course. Nonetheless, the result is noteworthy. Dr. Kurin's presentations are highly informative and he does a magnificent job relating causes to events as well as discussing consequences of actions taken. Even though I have taught American history at the college level, there were aspects of this course that provided me with new information and/or a different perspective than I had previously. I especially applaud the decision to present history "warts and all," the only way in which history should be taught. There is genuinely much to celebrate in American history, and Dr. Kurin notes several of these, including incredible adventures, amazing commercial and scientific strides, and the living power of the American dream of justice and equality for all. Our failings as a people -- such as our woeful treatment of Native Americans and the many evils of slavery -- are inextricably bound up with our goals, and the stubborn pursuit -- and attainment -- of them by peoples of all races who simply refused to give up. The irony, for example, of a bunch of white, slave-holding males proclaiming a Declaration of Independence which declares that "all men are created equal" is very clear but, on the other hand, right from the beginning the appreciation for this imbalance was part of the American story. As Dr. Kurin points out, Thomas Jefferson's initial draft -- which emerged from a Committee of Five -- clearly deplored the introduction of slavery into the colonies, but this strong phrase was struck by the Continental Congress during its deliberations. And those words lived on in American memory, even as their reality was delayed for so long. It was foundational to the struggles of the abolitionists, cited by white and black champions of equality in both the 19th and 20th centuries, and ultimately attained with the dual -- if delayed -- triumphs of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Remarkable men and women, scientist and entrepreneur, artisan and laborer, all are celebrated in this course. Throughout, I found myself reliving those experiences, recognizing both how difficult were the circumstances and challenges of our ancestors, as well as with what courage they tackled the seemingly impossible tasks before them. As some other reviewers have mentioned, Dr. Kurin could have shown us more artifacts; but it would not have taken many more to risk disrupting the narrative threading by which he skillfully fixed each artifact in historical and cultural "place." Thanks to the Great Courses and this lecturer, I am again yearning to return to those wonderful museums around the great Mall in Washington, D.C., to take a fresh and lingering look again at these treasures.
Date published: 2014-11-07
Rated 1 out of 5 by from A True Disappointment As no man nor woman is "perfect', then no country can be perfect. This includes the United States Of America. However, Speaker Kurin ( Laboriously ) takes this opportunity to point out and pound the mistakes the USA has made since it's conception. This position is fine, nothing wrong with pointing out mistakes....but Kurin repeats his displeasure with the country that gives him the platform to point out our history. The problem with Kurin and this course is there is no balance. Kurin for the most part focuses on the failings of the men and events over our history. When Kurin does speak well of the USA, he declares it happened by chance. Here is an example. Kurin states that the fall of the Berlin Wall happened because of a rumor that spread among the East Germans people. He declares the momentum mounted so much that citizens started to tear down the wall as the East German soldiers just stood by.......Please give me a break. He continues, The USA men and woman mistreated the African American ( slaves - 2 full chapters), but he fails to point out that the slaves were SOLD by Black Africans in Africa. He also fails to point out that mistake and wrong doing of slavery was corrected by White men, black men and woman. WE corrected ourselves. Most countries do NOT do that. We mistreated the American Indians.all women, etc etc. So I guess he does not understand how a people and a country can "evolve". My question to Kurin is this...."if the country is so so bad, then why are millions trying to get into this country and few, if any are trying to leaving her." Professionally speaking, Kurin is a poor speaker, negative energy and very boring. Bottom line 85% negative, 15% positive.....and I am being generous. The Great Course and the Smithsonian can do a lot better.
Date published: 2014-11-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Trip to DC is now on the "Bucket List" This course was very informative and reminded me of many things I had forgotten as well as introduced me to incidents and events I did not know about. It also made me want to spend a couple of weeks in DC touring the museums. Getting to do in dept visits is now on my to-do list. PKG
Date published: 2014-11-01
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Bring out the gloves! Not a true show-and-tell When my workout buddy told me she bought this course, I cheered. I was ready to go workout. This is a terrific concept for a course: show-and-tell at the Smithsonian. The only problem is, we’re not at the Smithsonian, and the instructor is rarely even in the same room—or holds in his hands—the objects he is talking about. Sure, these items are not exactly the kind of goodies one takes to class for a show-and-tell. But when he put on those white gloves in lecture one, my heart started racing. Yes! That he was standing there with a bit of the actual flag was magnificent. He didn’t even really need to hold it. He was there with it. You had me. You had me because I could imagine being in his place. But then, just like that, you lost me. You lost me because you lost a repeated visual human connection with the featured objects. That element alone, that relationship of human wonder, would have made this course ten times more powerful—even if he never touched the objects. At the end of lecture one, for example, when he’s talking about the flag, he’s got to be in that exhibit hall, at least for the money shot. And therein lies the problem. We never left the Teaching Company studios. The way this course was billed, I was expecting an all-access pass to The Smithsonian for a terrific story on American history. I got the terrific story, no problem, but not the show-and-tell that I had hoped for. At the very least I was expecting some video clips of the exhibits. In the first lecture, for example, it would have been great if somebody with a video camera had simply walked down the hall and into the room where the Star-Spangled-Banner flag was housed. I never truly got a sense of perspective through being there. I got scale through other stills not created for this course, but scale is not the same thing as perspective. This course is screaming for intimate visual perspective—a legal barrier I assumed would have been overcome by teaming up with the Smithsonian. In the second lecture, only once do we actually cut away from the instructor for a medium shot of the buttons on Washington's uniform (shown on a monitor in the studio). If you can’t take us to The Smithsonian, there's no reason why you can't fill the screen with a single button. Give me a close shot. Show detail. Show texture. Give me access to a loose thread in George Washington’s uniform. Show me the human detail of the story. Not still pictures from a distance that look like they came from the museum's brochure. Ideally, slides should’ve only been used when an artifact was too fragile for display. It’s indicative of the same old pattern of focusing way too much on the professor and “live studio limitations” and not giving the visuals their due. You gave up on a classroom setting a long time ago. Do we still need to be stuck with the studio model and its extreme focus on the professor? Your photography courses escape this curse successfully because they go out on location. But your normal studio model is crippling your ability to teach visually. Because even if visuals are featured, they are shrunk down. Why is it against the rules to cut away from the professor? It’s maddening, course after course. Maybe we get a split screen of the featured object and the professor. Or if we’re lucky a slightly larger shot of the object and the shrunk-down itty bitty professor talking. I can’t be the only one watching on a tablet or a phone who needs FULL SCREEN CLOSE SHOTS OF OBJECTS to overcome my small screens. You would think it would have been easier with this course, since nearly everything in terms of visuals was shot independent of studio mechanics. At least with other courses you had the excuse of, "We're shooting live on tape and we just can't get that close." Nothing prevented the still photographers from getting close here. Bottom line: I thought I would see more that I can't see from my own pictures, or a friend's pictures, taken at the museum—something created specifically for this course. I thought I would have the feeling of being inside the glass case. There were times when I could not discern what slides are from The Smithsonian collection and what slides are supplemental images from other sources because we see them all on the same monitor in the same dressed up studio. When it comes time for the Smithsonian to trot out its goodies, take me on a journey. Fill me with anticipation and awe. Get out the gloves! Lecture three was the death blow for our workout sessions with this course. For a brief moment, I thought all would be redeemed with Jefferson’s Bible. Why? Because they actually brought it to the Teaching Company studio. But wait, the instructor doesn’t have gloves on...oh no...it’s not really Jefferson’s Bible. It’s a facsimile of Jefferson’s Bible (which I could buy on my own). So here were are, in a course partnered by The Smithsonian, landlocked in the Teaching Company Studio, looking at a facsimile of something we should be seeing in the real museum. Given the promise of this course, it’s a colossal disappointment. And we’re not even getting a good image of the facsimile. The camera, shooting from the side, is too far away. And the image, already reduced by a letterbox and even more reduced by the safety zone, was basically useless to us by the time it reached our screen. In my opinion it's time The Teaching Company take the visual component of their courses to the next level. Even with the studio model, there's no reason a cameraman can't get some interesting close shots of objects the professor wants to show. Get cutaways. Use lighting to create texture and show detail. Hold shots. Use movement. Create visual interest. I’m frustrated from feeling like nearly all I get to see, course after course, is a small, over-lit object half-covered by the professor’s hand (and photographed from a poor angle). You’ve demonstrated it can be done right. “Understanding Greek and Roman Technology: From Catapult to the Pantheon” did it magnificently. The A-Team cameramen were certainly on the job for that one. And it's reflected in the 5-star rating for that course (plus that teacher is simply lights out, and skill with models never hurts). I hope that as this unique partnership between The Great Courses and The Smithsonian moves forward, there’s more equality in the relationship, at least as we see it on the screen. Perhaps it is symptomatic of “Experiencing America” that, for whatever reason, it was felt that The Great Courses brand needed to be constantly shown. Not only with its usual watermark at the lower right (which is fine), but constantly featured on a giant monitor during the lectures for all but those few seconds we’re actually seeing slides from The Smithsonian. It gave me the impression that The Great Courses partnered with The Smithsonian yet hesitated to go all in. Or perhaps the Smithsonian didn’t want camera crews at its museum. Fair enough. But The Teaching Company constantly reminding me throughout every lecture that this is still The Great Courses—despite the partnership—suggests otherwise. Instead of it being 80% Teaching Company and 20% Smithsonian, it should have been the other way around. At least for this course. That was the whole draw. This could have been, should have been, one of the greatest courses The Teaching Company ever made. They had the head of the Smithsonian, who’s good with a teleprompter and smooth at hitting his marks. He loved his subject and knew what he was talking about. They had an awesome museum. And the coolest items ever. But they need a true motion picture cinematographer who can work, when called for, away from the studio. A visual storyteller behind the camera, someone who can better capture and weave dramatic images into the narrative. It’s the final piece of the puzzle, especially with a course like this one. Whatever technical, legal, or archival limitations there might be that I am not aware of, I have to believe the style of the visuals in a course like this—and in all The Great Courses—can be better. Much better. Much closer. Much more dramatic. Make it a focus, literally, to finally give your world-class scholarship, your world-class production values, what they deserve: world-class visuals.
Date published: 2014-10-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I thought this course was really good. I kind of expected them to actually walk through the Smithsonian's. But I believe The Great Courses did the Smithsonian's justice.
Date published: 2014-10-24
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