Mission & History

Visitors in the American Stories exhibition

Mission

Through incomparable collections, rigorous research, and dynamic public outreach, we explore the infinite richness and complexity of American history. We help people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future.

The National Museum of American History collects and preserves more than 3 million artifacts—all true national treasures. We take care of everything from the original Star-Spangled Banner and Abraham Lincoln’s top hat to Dizzy Gillespie’s angled trumpet and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Our collections form a fascinating mosaic of American life and comprise the greatest single collection of American history.

Our exhibitions explore major themes in American history and culture, from the War of Independence to the present day. The Price of Freedom: Americans at War surveys the history of U.S. military conflicts and examines ways in which wars have been defining episodes in American history. America on the Move immerses visitors in the sights, sounds and sensations of transportation in the United States from 1870 to the present. Familiar favorites on view include The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden, Within These Walls and The First Ladies. New artifact walls and special cases mean that a larger selection of our objects are on display, creating a new way of experiencing history. A schedule of temporary and traveling exhibitions will offer visitors something new on almost every visit.

The Museum hosts a full roster of public programs, from demonstrations, lectures, and tours to immersive live theater experiences. Music programs are offered by resident jazz and chamber music ensembles as well as guest performers. Our newly-renovated Warner Bros. Theater hosts world-class film programming. And the Nina and Ivan Selin Welcome Center provides complete information services for our visitors.

The Museum’s Archives Center houses a remarkable array of American history in documents, photographs, and other works. These include the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, advertising histories of major U.S. corporations, and the Duke Ellington Collection—sheet music, correspondence and photographs related to the life and career of the great composer and jazz musician.

Our website offers online exhibitions, behind-the-scenes glimpses into our collections and an overview of Museum programs and activities. Using the website, you can plan your visit to the Museum or go on a tour from your home. The Smithsonian’s History Explorer, the Museum’s new education Web site, offers free, standards-based, innovative resources for teaching and learning American history. We even have our own blog, “O Say Can You See,” where you can stay updated on what’s happening at the Museum.

More than ever before, the National Museum of American History today shines new light on American history. The museum works to ensure that our collections, exhibitions, research, publications and educational programs all support the Museum’s basic mission—to inspire a broader understanding of our nation and its many peoples—and to make our exhibitions and programs as accessible as possible to all visitors.

History

Museum under construction
Construction of the National Museum of American History began in the late 1950s.

The National Museum of American History opened to the public in January 1964 as the Museum of History and Technology. It was the sixth Smithsonian building on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Since then, some 4 million visitors a year have passed through the doors to enjoy the Museum’s exhibitions, public programs, educational activities, collections, and research facilities. Millions more make virtual visits to the Museum’s website.

On June 28, 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill authorizing $36 million for the museum. Groundbreaking took place on August 22, 1958. The architects were McKim, Mead and White (succeeded in 1961 by Steinman, Cain and White). Mills, Petticord and Mills were associate and supervising architects and engineers. The Museum’s area is approximately 750,000 square feet, including a basement, three main exhibition levels, two office-collection levels and a mechanical penthouse on the roof.

The building’s location on the National Mall qualifies it as a National Historic Landmark. Its status as one of the last structures designed by the renowned architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, along with its location, makes it eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1980, the Museum’s name was changed to the National Museum of American History to better represent its basic mission—the collection, care and study of objects that reflect the experience of the American people.

In 2008, the Museum completed a two-year, $85 million renovation of the building’s center core, dramatically transforming the building’s architectural appeal while reorganizing and renewing the presentation of its extensive collections. The renovation project focused on three areas: architectural enhancements to the center core, including a grand staircase and a skylight; construction of a new Star-Spangled Banner gallery, and updates to the 44-year-old building’s infrastructure.

Currently, the transformation of the Museum is continuing with a major project to renew the building’s 120,000-square-foot west exhibition wing.