That Hat Belongs in a Museum, Madam - Honest, It Really Does

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IN her own special way, Marjory Milford is making history.

Coming over the rise of an Astrodome escalator here, her head - in full political regalia - rises like a patriotic dawn.

Smithsonian Institution curator Larry Bird recognizes a museum piece on the hoof when he sees it and follows Mrs. Milford, working up the "ingratiating irrationality" he uses to pry collectibles from their owners.

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Mrs. Milford's Texas cowboy hat is topped by a tiny Uncle Sam, Bush-Quayle campaign buttons, and numerous political organization membership pins, ribbons, and GOP elephant stickers. Little yellow rosettes (as in the Yellow Rose of Texas) around the underside of the brim convince Mr. Bird that "this is a good hat."

"I worked so hard on it," the Dallas Republican activist says, unsure whether she wants to part with her creation even for posterity's sake.

Mr. Bird lowers his gigantic - 3 foot by 4 foot - artist's portfolio that he hauls through security searches and up and down convention aisles, and offers her his business card.

"Think about it," he says, adding one last ingratiating hook as he looks at her hat: "I wouldn't change a thing."

Bird has collected political artifacts for the Smithsonian's National History Museum through three election cycles. They are housed in the continuous "We the People" exhibit of 200 years worth of American political memorabilia.

This is more than just flea market kitsch, explains Bird: "I collect things that show active engagement in the process of electing the president ... a sense of participation." His work in the political history division of the museum has also included the excavation of a family fallout shelter from the Midwest.

"That's political history, too," he says.

That sense of participation cannot be captured by television, he says, adding that TV in the past 30 years has reduced individual participation in the ceremony of the electoral process. Buttons, banners, and signs used to be distributed free by political campaign management.

"But today, campaign management ... invests in television," he says. And the memorabilia is largely collected and sold among political activists and not widely available to citizens, he says.

"Campaigns would be quantitatively different" if novelty items were used more widely as they once were to help build groundswells of support among Americans who are otherwise removed from the campaign by television, he says.

Americans are relatively ignorant of their political history, observes Bird. For example, the Smithsonian political memorabilia collection shows that the negative campaigning politicians and pundits simultaneously participate in and decry, is a relative thing.

"They say that things keep getting meaner and meaner. But we can look back on our collection and find scurrilous, patently offensive items," he says. Among some of the Smithsonian's negative campaign exhibits are, for example, cartoons of Grover Cleveland being chased by his illegitimate child.

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