Publication Date

May 12, 2016

Perspectives Section

Perspectives on Culture


Cultural, Public History

How do you condense hundreds of years of American history into 20 minutes? This was the challenge facing staff at the National Museum of American History (NMAH) in Washington, DC, where We the People, an introductory film for visitors to the museum, debuted in December 2015. Produced by the Smithsonian Channel, the film aims to enrich visitors’ experiences at the NMAH by encouraging a deeper exploration of American history in relation to the museum’s exhibits. It does so by examining how Americans have struggled with the ideals of democracy, opportunity, and freedom over several centuries. I sat down recently to talk with David Allison, associate director for curatorial affairs; Valeska Hilbig, deputy director, Office of Marketing and Communications; and Jaya Kaveeshwar, senior adviser to the director, about the goals and the decisions involved in making the film.

The Smithsonian’s new film is narrated by ordinary people and is not overly focused on notable leaders. Smithsonian ChannelThe new film is part of a broader set of changes being made at the NMAH under the leadership of director John Gray to explore the question of what it means to be American. The impetus for the film lay in his belief—echoed in requests from museum­goers—that an introductory film would enhance visitors’ engagement with that question at the museum. Gray explained via e-mail that the NMAH seeks to create an environment that fosters understanding and love for American history. The film, Gray said, provides a “chronological and thematic” context for the history in a way that is inspiring, complex, and “inclusive of the peoples of America.” It shows “how we have come together and persevered over time,” Gray added. As the other museum officials I spoke to observed, this concern with the question of American identity runs deep—in fact, it goes all the way back to the United States’ foundational documents. Heterogeneous from the beginning, Americans have grappled with diversity and unity throughout the country’s history, and the film, they noted, is geared toward those who want to know what their country and American identity are about.

Viewers of We the People probe these questions on history and identity during their visit to the NMAH, and the film is made for that specific context. Rather than summarizing American history, the film focuses on three ideals—democracy, opportunity, and freedom—chosen for their relevance to the museum’s current and forthcoming exhibits. Democracy, as Allison, Hilbig, and Kaveeshwar explained, is fundamental to American identity, and exhibits at the museum explore both its political and cultural dimensions. Similarly, opportunity, or economic concerns, have historically driven immigration to the country and also provided the impetus behind slavery and the import of humans in bondage. The film thus complements the NMAH’s exhibits on business, innovation, and migration to North America. The museum chose freedom as the third ideal because unlike equality—which could have been an alternative—the concept encompasses freedom of opportunity and religion. (A new section of the museum will delve into American religious history.) Crafted to help visitors make sense of what they are going to encounter, We the People recognizes that people visit the museum on their own terms and are free to choose which exhibits to see. The film’s thematic approach allows visitors to understand the exhibits they choose to see as part of a larger story.

We the People helps viewers connect historical ideas and figures to objects held at the National Museum of American History. Smithsonian ChannelWe the People considers such major developments in American history as the arrival of European settlers in North America, the American Revolution, westward expansion, the Civil War, the building of the railroads, immigration, women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights Movement, and more. The short film, however, necessarily leaves out more than it includes. Only three wars—the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II—are featured, although the Vietnam War is alluded to through imagery of antiwar protests. Because the museum wanted to tell a social and cultural story about American history, it chose to feature the three wars that in its judgment had affected Americans the most, domestically speaking.

The NMAH also made specific choices regarding the film’s treatment of slavery. We the People does not consider the abolition movement and does not examine slaves’ transition to freedom at the end of the Civil War, which the movie explains was fought over the issue of slavery. When asked about this, museum officials responded that they focused on slavery as an economic system rather than a social one. Slavery had not, as many Americans expected, died a natural death in the early republic because of economic imperatives, and though the Civil War ended slavery, it took the Civil Rights Movement to tackle enduring inequality—a development that the film does cover. Allison emphasized that the film is not meant to stand alone and that visitors can explore the wars not examined in the movie and the abolition movement in various exhibits at the museum.

Visual images also highlight topics and issues not covered explicitly by the film’s narrators. For example, a well-known image of the 1867 signing of General William Sherman’s peace treaty with several Central Plains Indian tribes conveys—to viewers who are familiar with the picture—a key moment in United States reservation policy. Similarly, the rise of the LGBT rights movement is told through images of protests. Different viewers, the museum officials noted, will take different things from the film.

Museum leaders hope that the film will inspire its viewers to become more engaged in American civic life. Narrated by ordinary people and not overly focused on many notable leaders, the film asks viewers to understand American history as participatory and to consider the national story in relation to the personal. This approach is also reflected in the museum’s 2016 theme, “America Participates,” which is conveyed in the tagline for the film, “Love history, use history, make history.” The museum, Allison, Hilbig, and Kaveeshwar explained, is explicitly asking Americans to use history to make sense of the past and present in order to create a more humane future. History, and with it Americans’ contests over democracy, opportunity, and freedom, they observed, is an ongoing process.

Produced by the Smithsonian Channel under executive producer Linda Goldman as a gift to the museum, We the People is shown several times each day.

is program coordinator at the American Historical Association.

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