Review: National Museum of American History

(Cross-posted at Progressive Historians)

On a cold Friday morning this past November, I set my alarm extra early, walked to the metro, and made my way to the ribbon-cutting ceremony for re-opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. After staking out a position in the crowd next to the television crews, I was rewarded for a forty minute wait by turning around and coming face-to-face with Colin Powell, who was making his way to the stage flanked by security.  I was too star-struck to say anything besides, “Good morning, sir,” although I did get to shake his hand on his way out. After a relatively short ceremony that included the national anthem and Powell reading the Gettysburg Address, they cut the ribbon and let the streaming crowds into the renovated and revamped museum. I took a brief walk around before realizing I was late for work. Today I finally had the chance to return to the museum for a proper exploration.

I had never been to the pre-renovation museum, but from what I’ve read it was relatively dark and cluttered. The new museum has largely addressed these issues, as the main lobby on the mall entrance is expansive, and wide glass skylights allow in ample sunlight to illuminate sleek architectural lines. Guests are funneled largely towards the crown jewel of renovation efforts: a multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art exhibit to house and display the Star-Spangled Banner. I was less than impressed with the exhibit. The visitor is first led down a hallway containing some basic background behind the story of the flag. The information was not conveyed very clearly, the lighting was too dim, and the wall screens displayed cheesy and surprisingly low-tech animations of the War of 1812. The part of the exhibit displaying the flag itself was a bit better, and it gave a very strong sense for the sheer size and weight of the flag (30 x 34 ft):

Next to the flag was a really well-done tabletop with a slowly scrolling and panning zoomed image of the flag, with small nodes/hostpots that the visitor could “click” to open up a infobox on various aspects of the flag. I thought the coolest part was that it gave the impression of a massive touch-screen, but all of it was in fact a projected image from above with an extremely sensitive sensor system that created a supremely dynamic and fluid interactive framework.

The next exhibit I walked through was the impressive “Within These Walls,” which leads the visitor around a partially reconstructed house from the town of Ipswich, Massachusetts:

Originally constructed in the mid-18th century, the house serves as a focal point for exploring its development through the next two centuries. My favorite aspect of the exhibit was an impressive use of written primary source material alongside the flashier material objects. Behind the array of medallions and tables, the walls themselves displayed important texts with pertinent sections highlighted. For example, one panel displayed a recorded will from one of the house’s residents that included a mention of Chance, a black house servant and former slave. This was a conscious decision on the part of the curator(s), as they begin the exhibition with an explanation of how historians find “clues” to examine the house. The exhibit does a great job of weaving together these clues, from allowing visitors to view a sample paint chip through a microscope to see its different layers, to enhancing an old map of the neighborhood with overlaid photographs and diagrams of a nearby mill and train depot. While a little bit simplistic, I was impressed at their efforts to make the process of historical research and discovery more accessible to a general public beyond, “Hey check out this sweet Gatling Gun!”

The next exhibit I explored was “Communities in a Changing Nation,” which uses three different communities (New England factory workers, Cincinatti’s Jewish enclave, and blacks in South Carolina) to examine 19th-century America:

In my opinion, “Communities in a Changing Nation” was less than impressive. It embodied a lot of the less appealing elements of a more “traditional” museum exhibit. Using a largely linear approach, with exhibits on either side of the hallway, it lacked both clarity and innovation. The exhibit assigned a matrix system of four broader themes to the three communities: Land and Abundance, Equality and Democracy, Freedom and Independence, and Progress and Opportunity. I didn’t even realize this thematic attempt until halfway through the exhibit, and even when I was aware of these themes, I had trouble identifying differences between them. Finally, the African-American community seemed a little patronizing. It included several life-like mannequins that didn’t work that well, especially considering that none of the other “communities” had similar displays. While not necessarily offensive, I don’t think it was done with particular subtlety or sensitivity.

If anyone has the chance to go to the museum in the next several weeks, I’d recommend seeing the White House copy of the Gettysburg Address, on loan only until January 4th, 2009. While the exhibit itself isn’t anything special, being able to see Lincoln’s handwritten copy of arguably one of the most famous speeches in American history is certainly special in and of itself.

Finally, my surprise favorite exhibit was “America on the Move,” a massive, winding exploration of transportation in America. I was largely skeptical as I entered through a doorway labeled “General Motors Hall of Transportation,” and prepared myself for overt championing of the automaking industry alongside a superficial, traditional, and commercialized presentation. Instead, I was greeted with a remarkably organic layout. Although a bit confusing for those who like linear, clearly organized exhibits, I soon discovered the joys of stumbling onto various nooks and corners and becoming utterly absorbed in individual sections. Public historians talk a lot of about allowing the visitor to explore a space for themselves, but it’s often difficult to achieve this goal. I felt that “America on the Move” managed to accomplish it.

As an example of one such instance of exploration, I inadvertently walked into a side-room that included two screens, one on a pedestal and another wall-sized display mounted above. On the smaller screen, the visitor could place pins onto a touchscreen map of the world, with each pin representing their lineage – where they, their parents, and their grandparents were born. Upon completion, the results were displayed on the larger screen before being added to an aggregate dot-image map displaying the results of every visitor’s participation. The composite image was a constantly-changing and growing database displaying museum visitors’ ancestries. The viewer was left not only with a larger sense of what constituted being “American,” but also a feeling of participation in a larger project.

I was impressed with the immersive aspect of “America on the Move,” largely made possible through the significant donations of a wide range of supporters (including, unsurprisingly, GM, AAA, Exxon Mobil, UPS, and Caterpillar). But there was an attention to detail that made it really fascinating – for instance, displays that included baskets of synthetic fruit to be transported actually smelled like fruit (or something like fruit). When the visitor stepped on board a model commuter bus, its vibrating machinery, moving images, and sharp sounds actually made them fell like a 1959 commuter. There is a fine line between overdone and cheesy special effects and those subtle touches that accomplish the goal of making the visitor feel like they are actually “there.” The exhibit did a great job of deftly navigating that line.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History is faced with a daunting task: preserving and displaying our entire nation’s history. There is simply no way to adequately accomplish this task, and there will always be omissions and interpretative differences. But if the museum makes a real commitment to gather and respond to feedback from a variety of sources, to evolve and ask tough questions, and to continually self-improve beyond a $85 million physical renovation, then I am optimistic for its future as a publicly accessible gateway into examining America’s past.

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