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The importance of small things

In a museum chock-full of 3 million objects, it’s usually the showy ones that get the most attention—the ruby slippers, the Star-Spangled Banner, the entire 2 ½ story house from Ipswich, Massachusetts, the locomotives, the enormous half-naked statue of George Washington, Lincoln’s top hat.

Bracelet Neonatal hospital bracelet, about 1995.

But sometimes the smallest, everyday objects hold the most amazing stories. This hospital bracelet is—in its function and form—identical to millions that are strapped around the wrists of adults and children alike every day. But this bracelet belonged to a baby named Taylor Dahley, who in 1995 was the recipient of the very first in-utero bone marrow transplant. Early in his mother’s pregnancy, it was discovered that Taylor had Severe Combined Immune Deficiency, an extremely rare blood disorder. By transplanting some of his father’s bone marrow cells into Taylor’s abdomen, doctors were able to save him from the disease that killed his older brother.

I’m currently seven months pregnant, so part of my attraction to this object is its relation to my own life. A month ago I was lying on a table in my doctor’s office, looking at the four chambers of my baby’s heart on the ultrasound screen, pumping away perfectly. My mother-in-law was with me and was astounded by what we could see in just a routine ultrasound. Just a generation ago, she didn’t know a thing about her babies before they were born. Science has now given us the ability not only to detect problems in utero, but to actually correct them with extremely sophisticated surgeries. The ways that medical advances have shaped American life are astounding.

I will always have a deep affection for our museum’s “greatest hits.” But it’s the small objects with big stories that often leave me in awe.

Megan Smith is an education specialist at the National Museum of American History