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Experiencing America: A Smithsonian Tour through American History

Dive into a rich, visual history of the United States of America, as told using the Smithsonian's one-of-a-kind collection of iconic and symbolic American artifacts.
Experiencing America: A Smithsonian Tour through American History is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 58.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from History without glossing over...but no polemics An excellent overview of the USA's complicated, and at times, regrettable history. But Dr Kurin never degenerates into polemics accusing contemporary Americans of being complicit in our nation's historical shortcomings. The Smithsonian's artifacts that he presents are all the more valuable in appreciating our history, both good and bad. But he doesn't allow that bad to negate the overall good.
Date published: 2022-07-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Content Wonderful programming and great insights into our nation’s history. Thank you for delivering this excellent content.
Date published: 2022-03-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great tour of historical America Excellent tour guide with Dr. Richard Kirin from the Smithsonian. He describes the events in history that show how America developed into a vast nation. Enjoyed learning!!
Date published: 2022-02-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Much more than an examination of museum exhibits Each item selected from the Smithsonian collections becomes a springboard to a mass of related historical information. These lectures have been a joy to attend, far exceeding my expectations on ordering the course.
Date published: 2021-10-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Experience America With This Course Experiencing America delivered by Professor Kurin takes us on a thematic journey through American history featuring a wide variety of collected and donated Smithsonian artifacts and exhibits that illustrate the amazing experience of what it means to be an American. Professor Kurin is a curator for the Smithsonian and therefore has access to these amazing artifacts and exhibits that otherwise would not be accessible to other scholars in this specialized field of academia. He is also a talented and well practiced public speaker who is gifted with the ability to instruct, persuade and entertain his viewing audience. I highly recommend this course to you and also his Great Courses tour of Washington DC course as well. If you love your country and everything that our country has stood for since 1776 then this course is for you.
Date published: 2020-11-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Really great! It’s really great. The professor is so awesome. The artifacts he shows and explains from the Smithsonian collections are such treasures. Teaches you the importance of 'things' in recollecting history.
Date published: 2020-11-08
Rated 3 out of 5 by from A supplement to comprehensive study of US history As its title states, this course provides a tour through aspects of American history as illustrated by a series of objects and exhibits owned by the Smithsonian, describing their contexts, origins, provenance, and importance. As such, rather than being a summary of the country’s history or a coherent story of any of its themes or features, it is more of a sampling, as one might get on a series of in-person visits to the museum. The course could thus serve as a supplement to a more comprehensive history of one of those things. The presenter, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture, assembled these lectures in part from his book, “The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects”. He presents an array of topics and artifacts that cover a wide range of the features that have shaped the country’s diversity and current cultural features. I found most of the discussions to be interesting and informative, or reinforcing of material presented in other courses I’ve taken, although sometimes I thought they dragged a bit and that the presentations were not as smooth or engaging as in other offerings in this general subject area.
Date published: 2020-09-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from very detailed. I enjoy listening to all the lectures. They are well planned and interesting.
Date published: 2020-06-27
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Experience a visual history of America as only the Smithsonian can tell it-with 24 lectures delivered by the curator of our nation's greatest treasures.


Richard Kurin

Objects have an amazing ability to connect us to history in a powerful, emotional, visceral way.


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 from the University of Chicago.

Dr. Kurin has worked at the Smithsonian for almost four decades, starting with the Bicentennial of the United States in 1976. For decades he directed the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, representing the diversity of America's cultural traditions at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall, in Folkways recordings and other publications. He has produced programs on American history and culture for several presidential inaugurations and for the Olympics, as well as the National World War II Reunion for the opening of the World War II Memorial. Before becoming Under Secretary, Dr. Kurin directed the Smithsonian's National Programs, sending exhibitions and educational offerings across the United States. Dr. Kurin has served on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, and drafted an international treaty on safeguarding the world's living cultural heritage. He represents the Smithsonian on the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, as well as the White House Historical Association. He has been awarded the Smithsonian Secretary's Gold Medal for Exceptional Service and numerous other honors.

Dr. Kurin has taught at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and frequently lectures at The George Washington University, as well as at universities and museums across the country and around the world. He regularly blogs for Smithsonian magazine and Smithsonian Journeys, has given hundreds of speeches, and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs.

Dr. Kurin is the author of scores of scholarly articles and several books, including Hope Diamond: The Legendary History of a Cursed Gem; Reflections of a Culture Broker: A View from the Smithsonian; and Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Culture of, by, and for the People. His latest book is The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects, a national bestseller that provides the basis for this Great Course

By This Expert

Experiencing America: A Smithsonian Tour through American History
The Great Tours: Washington DC
Experiencing America: A Smithsonian Tour through American History


Star-Spangled Banner-Inspiring the Anthem

01: 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."

34 min
Presidents and Generals-Images of Leadership

02: 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."

30 min
Conscience and Conflict - Religious History

03: 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.

31 min
The Growth and Spread of Slavery

04: 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.

33 min
Emancipation and the Civil War

05: 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.

30 min
Gold, Guns, and Grandeur-The West

06: 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.

32 min
The First Americans-Then and Now

07: 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.

33 min
Planes, Trains, Automobiles ... and Wagons

08: 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.

32 min
Communications-From Telegraph To Television

09: 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.

32 min
Immigrant Dreams and Immigrant Struggles

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.

31 min
User Friendly-Democratizing Technology

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.

32 min
Extinction and Conservation

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.

34 min
Kitty Hawk to Tranquility-Innovation and Flight

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.

32 min
Cold War-Red Badges, Bombs, and the Berlin Wall

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.

31 min
National Tragedy-Maine, Pearl Harbor, 9/11

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.

32 min
For the Greater Good-Public Health

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.

31 min
Women Making History

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.

32 min
The Power of Portraits

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.

31 min
Two Centuries of American Style

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.

30 min
Hollywood-The American Myth Machine

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.

32 min
The Hope Diamond-America's Crown Jewel

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.

32 min
Sing Out for Justice-American Music

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.

33 min
Exploring the Land, Exploring the Universe

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.

32 min

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.

44 min