“History” isn’t a dry academic study, but you’d never know from most popular culture, where the study of the past is limited to its geeky adherents, walled off from more normal society and called upon only when it becomes directly relevant to whatever story is being told. But everyone lives with some level of personal history, and that personal history is often associated with quite public history. America’s Lost Treasure utilizes a slightly contrived filmed contest to reveal that we’re swimming in history, but it’s important to be reminded of it nevertheless.
The premise is simple: The hosts, Curt Doussett and Kinga Philipps, travel from city to city, with a call out for people to bring their American treasures for appraisal. A few items are chosen for more in-depth analysis, including discussions with local experts. Of course, it’s similar to Antiques Roadshow, but there are two key, related differences: The pieces are specifically tied to American history, and there’s a little competition where one piece will be put in the National Geographic Museum and its owner receives a tidy $10,000 check (and presumably also remains the owner of the item when the exhibit ends). These aspects end up making the show less about the monetary value (although that’s still important, maybe a little too important) and more about the item’s wider historical import and appropriateness for display.
In tonight’s episode, we see three items which each could lay claim to historical importance: an ornate gun used by a famous Texas Ranger, a saddle belonging to famous rodeo hero Jim Shoulders, and an original map drawn for Mexican general Santa Anna depicting his successful campaign in Zacatecas. All of these are legitimately one-of-a-kind, verified by the experts found by the show, and worthy of inclusion in the museum. That only one gets to go to the National Geographic Museum may be unfair (the second episode distributed to critics, set in L.A., doesn’t have artifacts anywhere near as interesting), but it also gives a rooting interest for viewers. As a map lover, I was very much in favor of it, though I recognized the suitableness of the others for museum viewing.
The process by which the hosts analyze the pieces is also fascinating. They look for local experts, bringing them the artifact and letting them do their analysis. This means that they go to people’s homes, to local libraries, to historical societies and points of interest, to museums, and even local businesses with experts. It illustrates that history is being made all around us. The paleontologists at L.A.’s Natural History Museum are put on equal ground with music historians at a shop; a research librarian and a firearms expert are similarly portrayed in Texas. There’s no shortage of people with the specialized skills to be helpful, which is delightful—history geeks are everywhere, and are even gainfully employed.
America’s Lost Treasures is also aided by the fact that Doussett and Philipps, are both enthusiastic and intelligent—but they’re also playful, which keeps the show lively. Doussett in particular has some interesting moments—when one woman brings in a stuffed pink flamingo head, the show cuts to a talking-head segment where he doesn’t actually talk, just mugs surprise and alarm. (On the other hand, he seems to flirt with many of the female interview subjects and artifact owners, which is occasionally charming but gets close to creepy a time or two). Philipps is less overtly funny, but she may be a slightly better interviewer, and the red boots she wears are probably America’s real lost treasure.
There’s also a sense of fun to the editing. Curt, examining the map at the Alamo, wonders “I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to face Santa Anna in battle.” The archivist responds “I can help with that,” and we’re whisked off to reenactments, where the two men are decked out in absurd historical outfits, firing guns. It’s equally amusing to see Curt examine a saxophone in a music shop, and when it’s tested in a studio environment, a wiener dog starts jumping up and down and howling along. America’s Lost Treasures may not do anything especially innovative, but it has a strong focus and a good sense of fun, both well-demonstrated through the show’s production, on-camera and off.