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Smithsonian officials head to Fort Lauderdale in search of African-American treasure

Experts at the Smithsonian's soon-to-open National Museum of African-American History and Culture are touching down in Fort Lauderdale to see your personal treasures. And they don't mean your grandfather's toothbrush.

On the final leg of a national tour created to identify and preserve African-American objects of historical significance, Smithsonian Institution workers will examine South Florida residents' personal items on Saturday and Sunday at the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center.

"The objects don't have to have any value at all, save sentimental value, things that were passed down through their family," says James Gordon, spokesman for the Smithsonian museum slated to open in 2015 on Washington, D.C.'s National Mall. "A lot of people have brought in old Bibles, pictures, quilts that got lost, had flood damage or whatever. Not in the best shape. We're just trying to help identify and give tips on preserving items."

Locals of any ethnicity should bring long-forgotten heirlooms that have been stowed away in attics, socked away in garages and piled up in closets, including ceramics, uniforms, dolls, paintings, flags, historic pictures and needlework projects. Smithsonian officials will examine up to three items during a 15-minute consultation. Objects will be reviewed, not appraised for monetary value, Gordon says.

The library's executive director, Elaina Norlin, says the weekend's push to help salvage family legacies should resemble what she witnessed last summer at the Brooklyn Museum. Norlin sat in as experts — Smithsonian preservationists, historians and conservators, all with doctorates — identified with "bewildering" accuracy the origin of a man's black-and-white photo of a schoolhouse.

"The expert looked at it and said it was shot in Georgia right after the Emancipation [Proclamation]. It was bizarre," Norlin recalls. "So if your grandmother has a trinket, or you've got photos of a great-so-and-so that you feel is worth preserving, it's worth bringing in."

The Smithsonian’s visit, postponed from October because of the government shutdown, will also feature presentations that address protecting objects before a natural disaster; creating digital copies of old photographs; and preserving clothing and textiles.

There will also be "Black Broward Speaks," a joint-presentation from the library, the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society and the Broward County Historical Commission, which includes photos of black Broward residents dating to the 1890s.

The Smithsonian is also on the hunt for rare objects of national importance, Gordon says, which, if authenticated, could be displayed at the new museum.

"To be honest, we haven’t been really successful at finding a lot of historically significant artifacts for a major museum," Gordon says. "But if someone from Florida brought in a remnant from a slave ship, for example, we’d be very interested in that."

"Save Our African-American Treasures: A National Collections Initiative of Discovery and Preservation" will take place 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 11, and noon-5:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 12, at the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center, 2650 Sistrunk Blvd., in Fort Lauderdale. Admission is free. Call 877-733-9599 or go to

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