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Behind the scenes of the webcast: An intimate history of the Roosevelts

A teddy bear snow globe was my favorite souvenir from a family visit to the National Museum of American History. I've kept the memento since elementary school and it reminds me of what I learned on my visit—that the teddy bear was so called because it was a popular toy during Theodore Roosevelt's presidency. Always fond of T.R. and his policies, I was understandably excited when I heard that Ken Burns was making one of his documentary film series about the Roosevelts, called The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.

My cherished teddy bear snow globe
My cherished teddy bear snow globe

My excitement only increased when I began my internship at the museum this fall. Interning in public programs, I got to help plan and facilitate a webcast featuring Burns and two of the historians featured in his latest films. Curator Harry Rubenstein also joined the panel and brought some of the Roosevelt artifacts the museum has in its collections, including a hat worn by Eleanor, one of the very first teddy bear toys, and a microphone President Franklin D. Roosevelt used during his famous fireside chats.

Teddy bear from around 1903
Teddy bear from around 1903

These artifacts not only show the interest the nation has in the history of our political figures, but also demonstrate a unique connection the Roosevelts have to the Smithsonian. In fact, Theodore Roosevelt partnered with the Smithsonian Institution in collecting hundreds of specimens on an African safari he took after his presidency. From insects to elephants, T.R.'s expedition produced invaluable materials for the Smithsonian (such as this vole) that would make up some the museum's most popular exhibitions.

Lights, camera, history!
Lights, camera, history!

On the day of the webcast, energy in the room was high. Our local audience consisted of high school students who excitedly looked from the stage to the film clips, to the artifacts. Not only was I lucky enough to sit in on the discussion, but I got to participate in the production aspect as well by holding up cue cards and keeping time for our speakers. (Check out how official I look!)

Helping with webcast production
Helping with webcast production

Before the day of the webcast, I watched the entire 14-hour series about the Roosevelts, rectifying the fact that I didn't know much about the family beforehand. Suffice it to say that I am now hooked on Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor, and I now consider theirs the most fascinating political family in American history. Ken Burns calls his films "an intimate history," and focuses on so much more than the public history and well-known facts about the three. He gives in-depth descriptions of the triad's personal lives and connects them to one another through dozens of letters and photographs. By demonstrating the affinity the Roosevelts had for their own family members, Burns also sheds light on a similar relationship that the American public came to have with the Roosevelts. During Franklin Roosevelt's time in office, he regularly corresponded with Americans who wrote to him and Eleanor expressing their thoughts on his policies during the Great Depression. Whereas all previous presidents needed only one mail clerk to sort their daily letters, FDR and Eleanor used 50 mail clerks to sort theirs.

All this information and more was discussed at the webcast, where the audience and online viewers got to ask questions of the panelists, initiating even more conversation about the Roosevelts and their continued influence on the United States. You can find the webcast archived on our website. If you find yourself falling in love with the Roosevelts as much as I have, you can find the many Roosevelt artifacts on display here at the museum.

Stephanie Maguire is an intern in the Office of Programs and Strategic Initiatives.