Museums

Strengthening the Intellectual Framework of a National Museum

John L. Gray, April 2015

For the first time in years, the Help Wanted sign is out at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, reversing a several-decade trend that saw our curatorial force shrink by 50 percent. To rejuvenate the museum’s scholarly foundation, we have adopted a five-year plan to hire 20 new curators, relying on increased federal support for new positions as well as raising private funds to replace retiring staff with endowed positions. We are carefully crafting the new positions to ensure full chronological coverage of American history, to guarantee oversight of our existing collections, and to expand into topical areas, such as ethnic and gender studies, that enjoyed only limited coverage in years past.

The museum’s curatorial staff assumes an exceptionally diverse array of responsibilities. They research, interpret, and expand the museum’s extensive collections, which include 1.7 million three-dimensional artifacts and 17,000 cubic feet of documents. They propose and plan major exhibitions. They digitize the collections and make images and documentation available to audiences around the world. They participate actively in professional organizations and panels. They publish articles, monographs, books, and on the web.

The revitalization of our staff is linked to the ongoing renovation of our physical space. The building’s central core reopened in 2008 with a new gallery for the Star-Spangled Banner, floor-to-ceiling artifact walls on the first and second floors, and space for temporary exhibitions in the Albert Small Documents Gallery. On July 1, 2015, the first floor of the museum’s West Wing will reopen with new exhibitions organized not around historical chronology, but around ideas and ideals that have shaped the nation, with a focus on innovation, creativity, and business. The West Wing’s second floor (opening in 2017) will center on democracy and the peopling of America through immigration and migration, and the third floor (opening in 2018) on American culture and music.

American Enterprise—an exhibition on the history of business, innovation, and tensions between competition and the common good from 1770 to the present—anchors the first floor. Private support from SC Johnson will endow a new curator of American business. The Value of Money, another first-floor exhibition, will explore ways in which objects from the National Numismatics Collection convey messages about history, art, culture, and innovation. Our new curator of numismatics, Ellen Feingold, led the exhibition planning and will continue research and publishing on it in the coming years.

In addition to traditional exhibitions, the first floor’s 40,000 square feet will host hands-on learning spaces and a separate early-learning gallery (opening in winter 2015), as well as a conference center and demonstration stage with a large public plaza for visitors to engage in group discussions or explore topics presented in interactive demonstration carts. Our educational goal is to animate compelling ideas from the nation’s past and inspire active participation in building its future. The Clark Charitable Foundation has endowed a position, director of education and outreach, which has been filled by Carrie Kotcho, whose deep experience in multimedia and web development supports digital learning for K–12 students and teachers using original sources and objects.

As our new curator in the Division of Home and Community Life, Margaret Salazar-Porzio is playing a leading role in developing an exhibition on American immigration and migration. The support of board member Paul Neely for a newly established Jefferson Scholars program, for research in the history of democracy and diversity in America, will supplement our C. Malcolm Watkins Fellowship program, funded by a bequest from former curator Rodris Roth. Funding from Francis Kennedy will provide research assistance to support the culture and music themes featured on the third floor. And a new, endowed curatorial position will be announced later this year.

Recently we named Alexandra Lord, who came to us from the National Park Service, as chair of our Division of Medicine and Science. We are in the process of hiring new directors for our Archives Center and for the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. Over the next few years, our hiring initiative will add experts in the areas of political history, physical science and engineering, Asian Pacific American history, armed forces, culture and the arts, civil rights, information technology, graphic arts, and photographic history. The museum recently received news that the Office of Management and Budget has endorsed the need to rejuvenate Smithsonian staff; new federal funds, when approved by Congress, will be used to hire five curators in 2016.

The museum needs historians who do outstanding research at the professional level; curators interested in communicating their research to broad public audiences as well as to fellow academics; and scholars with interest and experience in museum work. Many of those who join our staff have a long-standing relationship with the Smithsonian: an internship in their early career, a Smithsonian fellowship, or research experience in our archives and collections. Others had similar experiences in other museums, but all are passionately interested in material culture—especially the use of historical objects and images as primary sources for research and education.

The transition we are embarking on at the National Museum of American History comes in the midst of a complete renovation of our building and all its major exhibitions. Many of our long-term staff members are reaching retirement age. As the only national history museum in the country, we have a special responsibility to present America’s story to millions of visitors each year from across the nation and around the world. Our mission is to help people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future. We look to the American Historical Association as an important source for future hires to help us achieve this goal.

John L. Gray is the Elizabeth MacMillan Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.


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