Anthea Hartig is the New Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Hartig

Congratulations!  Hartig is the first woman to hold the post in the museum’s 54-year history.  She comes to Washington D.C. with a Ph.D in history from the University of California-Riverside and experience at the California Historical Society and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  From 2000-2005 she taught history at La Sierra University, a Christian (Seventh-Day Adventist) school in Riverside.

Graham Bowley has the story covered at The New York Times:

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a new director, who will be the first woman to hold the position in its 54-year history: Anthea M. Hartig, currently the executive director and chief executive of the California Historical Society.

Ms. Hartig begins her new role in Washington, overseeing 262 employees and a budget of nearly $50 million, on Feb. 18. She will be the first woman to be director since the museum opened in 1964, the Smithsonian said. In her new role, in 2019 and 2020, she will open three exhibitions that are part of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, #BecauseOfHerStory. She will also complete the revitalization of the museum’s 120,000-square-foot west wing.

Read the rest here.

“The American Revolution: A World War”

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This is the title of the newest exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.  Learn more about it in Alice George‘s piece at Smithsonian.com.  Here is a taste:

A new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., invites Americans to recognize another world war—one that has been traditionally envisioned as a quaint and simple confrontation between a ragtag army of rebellious colonists and a king’s mighty military force of red-coated Brits. “The American Revolution: A World War” demonstrates with new scholarship how the 18th-century fight for independence fit into a larger, international conflict that involved Great Britain, France, Spain, the Dutch Republic, Jamaica, Gibraltar and even India. “If it had not become that broader conflict, the outcome might very well have been different,” says David K. Allison, project director, curator of the show and co-author of a new forthcoming book on the subject. “As the war became bigger and involved other allies for American and other conflicts around the world, that led Britain to make the kind of strategic decisions it did, to ultimately grant the colonies independence and use their military resources elsewhere in the world.”

 

The roots of this war lay in the global Seven Years War, known in the United States as the French and Indian War. In that conflict, Britain was able to consolidate its strength, while France and Spain experienced significant losses. At the time of the American Revolution, other European powers were seeking to restrain Great Britain, the greatest world power and owner of the planet’s most threatening navy.

“We became a sideshow,” says Allison. Both France and Spain, to undermine British power, provided both arms and troops to the rambunctious rebels. The Dutch Republic, too, traded weapons and other goods to the American colonists. Ultimately, after struggling to retain its 13 feisty colonies, British leaders chose to abandon the battlefields of North America and turn their attention to their other colonial outposts, like India.

Read the rest here.

Do We Need to Change Our Vocabulary When We Teach American History?

Compromise

Should this be called “The Appeasement of 1850?”

According to Christopher Wilson, the Director of the African American History Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, removing Confederate monuments is only the beginning.  In his recent piece at Smithsonian.com, Wilson argues that the vocabulary that we use to talk about American history is also tainted with Confederate values.

Here is a taste of his piece “We Legitimize the ‘So-Called’ Confederacy With Our Vocabulary, and That’s a Problem“:

Historian Michael Landis suggests professional scholars should seek to change the language we use in interpreting and teaching history. He agrees with people like legal scholar Paul Finkelman and historian Edward Baptist when they suggest the Compromise of 1850 be more accurately referred to as an Appeasement. The latter word precisely reflects the sway that Southern slaveholders held in the bargain. Landis goes on to suggest that we call plantations what they really were—slave labor camps; and drop the use of the term, “the Union.” A common usage in the 19th century to be sure, but now one we only use “the Union” in reference to the Civil War and on the day of the State of the Union address. A better way to speak of the nation during the war, he argues, is to use its name, the United States.

In the same way, we could change the way we refer to secessionist states. When we talk of the Union versus the Confederacy, or especially when we present the strife as the North versus the South, we set up a parallel dichotomy in which the United States is cast as equal to the Confederate States of America. But was the Confederacy really a nation and should we refer to it as such?

When historian Steven Hahn participated in the 2015 History Film Forum at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, he noted that using these customary terms to tell the story of the Civil War —Hahn suggests we use “War of the Rebellion”—lends legitimacy to the Confederacy.

“If you think about it,” Hahn said, “nobody in the world recognized the Confederacy. The question is can you be a state if no one says you are a state?”  

Read the entire piece here.

Early American Religion at the Smithsonian

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Are you looking for something to do this weekend?

Why not head to Washington D.C. to see the new “Religion in Early America” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History?  The exhibit, which is curated by historian Peter Manseau, is part of a larger exhibit on American identity titled “The Nation We Build Together.” It opened this week.

Over at Religion News Service, Adelle Banks reports on the new exhibit:

Enter the “Religion in Early America” exhibit and there are objects you expect to find: Bibles, a hymnal and christening items.

But on closer inspection, a broader picture of faith in the Colonial era emerges: a Bible translated into the language of the Wampanoag people, the Torah scroll of the first synagogue in North America and a text written by a slave who wanted to pass on the essentials of his Muslim heritage.

“Religion in early America was not just Puritans and the Pilgrims, and then the Anglicans and the negotiation of Christian diversity,” said Peter Manseau, curator of the exhibit that opens Wednesday (June 28) at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

“It was a much bigger picture. It was a story of many different communities with conflicting, competing beliefs, coexisting over time with greater and lesser degrees of engagement with each other.”

Read the rest here.

“The Nation We Build Together”

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Erin Blasco, the social media manager at Smithsonian National Museum of American History, calls our attention to “The Nation We Build Together,” a new theme-centered floor scheduled to open on June 28, 2017.

Here is a taste of her interview with John Gray, the Elizabeth MacMillan Director at the museum:

The museum’s new floor unites several different exhibitions under the unified theme of “The Nation We Build Together.” Can you talk about what that theme means to you?

We really want our visitors to have the opportunity to explore the largest ideals and ideas in America. And the name, “The Nation We Build Together,” says we are a people and a nation that works collectively through our democracy to forge our nation. This is an ongoing and complicated process—but we are always working toward our national motto: E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One). It is so important that, as Americans, we view ourselves as part of the body of America, working together, being together, and building this nation together.

We know “The Nation We Build Together” has been in development for many years. But why is that theme an important one to explore in 2017?

“The Nation We Build Together” is an important theme that resonates across our history, one that’s fundamental to understanding America, ourselves, and the larger political process—not limited to party politics, but how we learn, make, and determine how we are governed together.

That said, there’s never a better time than the present to understand America. Every election turns out to be different than some people expected. That was true last year, four years ago, four years before that, all the way back to our founding—it’s the nature of democracy as we practice it in America! Our new exhibition American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith will help our visitors understand and contextualize the inherent changes we see over time in America. It’s both reassuring and inspirational.

What are we trying to inspire visitors to think or do differently after visiting “The Nation We Build Together”?

The whole floor is about inspiring engagement—understanding that you are part of the process in a bigger way. Many Voices, One Nation inspires all of us to participate in building American communities—really build them! American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith reminds all of us that we must play an active role in our democracy to keep our nation vital and responsive. And Religion in Early America helps us understand the historical underpinnings of how we practice and celebrate the diversity of religious experience in America.

Read the rest here.

I wonder if there will be anything in the exhibition on the history of philanthropy? Check out Episode 23 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast (“Giving in America”) with Amanda Moniz, the David Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy at the museum.

I am also eager to see Peter Manseau‘s “Religion in Early America” exhibit.  I played a very small consulting role on the companion volume.

The Smithsonian Women’s History Initiative

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The Smithsonian is trying to raise $10 million for this new initiative.

A synopsis:

Women have influenced eras, changed nations and shaped history. Yet countless of their stories are not well known, their contributions not fully integrated into our national narrative.

The Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative will amplify women’s voices to honor the past, inform the present and inspire the future. As the preeminent institution about the American experience, the Smithsonian will tell the critical stories of women to millions of people in Washington, D.C., and around the world, elevating their pivotal roles in building and sustaining our country.

We seek donors who share our vision for women’s history to help launch this initiative. Your support will allow the Smithsonian to hire the best educators and curators to be positioned in museums throughout the Smithsonian. These experts will investigate our vast collection to uncover and illuminate women’s stories—and then plan programs, exhibitions and publications to inspire the next generation and reach a global audience.

Here is how the money will be used:

  • Recruit at least six new curators for five-year terms to work in museums across the Smithsonian and provide start-up funds for their research, exhibitions and programs.
  • Survey the Smithsonian’s collections for objects relevant to women’s history and establish an acquisitions fund to build the collection.
  • Hire an education specialist for a five-year term and allocate start-up funds to develop programs and educational materials.
  • Produce an annual symposium and other public programs, such as lectures, film series and curator talks.
  • Mentor ten paid interns each year.

OUR GOALS FOR THE INITIATIVE are ambitious. We aspire to grow far beyond the foundation of activities described above. With additional gifts, we will:

  • Recruit a senior curator for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and provide funds to help develop a landmark exhibition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020.
  • Create print and digital resources such as books, documentaries, podcasts and a website for a large and diverse audience.
  • Develop Washington, D.C.-based and traveling exhibitions, including a traveling exhibition of posters to reach hundreds of communities across the country.
  • Launch a venture fund, to seed new projects and provide competitive grants for emerging topics in women’s history across the Smithsonian.

Learn more here.

Is the Smithsonian American History Museum Too Corporate?

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Colette Shade, writing at Current Affairs, thinks so.

Here is a taste of her piece:

The Smithsonian has long carried a special virtuous sheen in the American imagination. It feels like one of our country’s few genuine projects for the common good. It was established out of the bequest of James Smithson, a wealthy British scientist who gave his estate to the young American nation in order to create an institution “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” In 1846, it became a trust administered by a special Board of Regents to be approved by the United States Congress. No other museum in the country has such an arrangement. And because its buildings line the National Mall, and admission is free, it has been regarded as something like the American people’s own special repository for knowledge. The Smithsonian helps define how America sees itself, and carries a weighty sense of dignity and neutrality.

It’s strange, then, that in certain parts of the Smithsonian, you may feel rather as if you’ve walked into the middle of a corporate sales pitch. When I visited the Smithsonian American History museum in December, for example, a “Mars Chocolate Demonstration” entitled “From Bean To Bar” was set up in a vestibule between exhibits. A half dozen people stood at a long table, showing how different stages in chocolate production worked. I had assumed they were docents until I noticed that most wore shirts embroidered with the Mars logo.

The lead presenter passed around a silicone model of a cacao pod, describing the process of growing the trees, explaining the role of hot chocolate in the American revolution, and telling us that the Aztecs used to consume only the white pulp that grows around the beans in the cacao pods. He informed us that nobody knows how the Aztecs discovered that the beans themselves had value, but offered a theory that they left the discarded beans by the fire, where they burned fragrantly. Then he passed around a bowl of roasted cacao nibs.

Later, I asked him whether he was a historian.

“I make M&Ms for a living,” he told me.

The demonstration was sponsored, I learned, by American Heritage Chocolate, a sub-brand of Mars that is sold exclusively at museums and historical sites. It is hard to critique a candy-making exhibit without seeming like a killjoy. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that the Mars promotional demonstration has somewhat limited relevance to the core mission of Museum of American History, or that having chocolatiers speculate about Aztec history is possibly below the expected Smithsonian standard of rigor. Having a chocolate-making demonstration is certainly a crowd-pleaser, and we did get free hot chocolate samples. But one cannot escape the suspicion that Mars, Inc. is using the Smithsonian to advertise chocolate to kids.

Read the rest here.

Grace Wisher and the Star Spangled Banner

The good folks at the National Museum of American History have published a post telling the story of Grace Wisher, the 13-year-old African American servant who helped Mary Pickersgill design the Star Spangled Banner which flew over Fort McHenry and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem of the United States of America.  Here is a taste of Wisher’s story as told by Helen Yuen and Asantewa Boakyewa of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore:

The size of the Star-Spangled Banner and its six-week timeline for completion would have necessitated many people working on the flag, including Mary Pickersgill’s three nieces and Grace Wisher. The household also had an enslaved person, whose name we do not know.
The home where Pickersgill and Wisher lived is now a museum called the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House. It holds a 1962 painting by famed Baltimore artist Robert McGill Mackall. The portrait features the Pickersgill household and the three men who commissioned the garrison and storm flags for Fort McHenry: Commodore Joshua Barney, General John Stricker, and Colonel George Armistead. As a tribute to Wisher, the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House drew in a ghost figure into the painting that represents the young girl. Due to our uncertainty of what she looked like, the placeholder is a traced line, but the recognition is tangible.
A major show inspired by Wisher is now on view at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore, Maryland. The exhibition For Whom It Stands: The Flag and the American People chronicles the flag through our nation’s history and culture. Coming full circle, the museum and exhibition are on the same city block where Wisher once lived and sewed the flag. Although none of Wisher’s personal effects are on display there and may have been lost to history, her untold story is a major theme of the show.

Archiving Agricultural Change

The National Museum of American History is collecting stories about American’s experience with the land.  They are calling it the Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive and are currently asking people to share their agricultural stories through their website. Here is a taste of a short Q&A with curator Peter Leibhold at the museum’s blog:

Why is the museum launching an initiative to collect agriculture stories from the public? 

The Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive is an exciting experiment for the museum. This is the first time that the museum has tried a collecting effort using social media. Usually, curators identify specific individuals and work directly with them to collect artifacts and stories. By reaching out through the web, we can reach thousands more people—and make the process more public. We’ll get greater diversity and build a more accurate, nuanced story of American agriculture.

Why turn to the public to share their stories? 

Reaching out to the public via the web is evidence that the museum is embracing 21st century tools. We are stepping out of the curatorial comfort zone and inviting public access.

Frankly, this is a bit terrifying for curators. Will we be overwhelmed with responses? How do we maintain rigor? The answers to these questions are unknown, but if we don’t try them, we can never succeed. We are excited about the Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive and think it might be a new way of doing public history for this museum. 

What kinds of material do you hope the public submits? 

Collecting museum objects is a black art. It is always hard to say what you are looking for in advance but fairly easy to say when you have found it. Curators look for icons; intrinsically interesting objects that represent great moments and esoteric ideas. For the Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive, we mostly hope to collect stories—insightful, introspective, and told in the first person. We want to bring history alive and make it personal.

We also hope to collect photographs, ephemera (letters, documents, trade literature, etc.), and oral histories. With the 2-D material, we don’t even have to collect the original as high quality scans will work. We don’t expect to collect big objects—tractor and combines are fascinating, but take up a lot of space.

The initiative is especially important as we develop the upcoming American Enterprise exhibition, as agriculture is one of five economic sectors explored in it. As we researched the topic, it became apparent that we lacked material that documented the many innovations that have fundamentally changed American agriculture.