How our "We the People" film came into being
Entering a museum with three floors, three million artifacts, and three dozen displays and exhibitions can be intimidating. That's why we decided to create "We the People," a new introductory film that made its public debut in our Warner Bros. Theater on December 16. Produced in collaboration with Smithsonian Channel, the 20-minute video provides an overview of American history to illustrate the museum's mission and connect visitors with its collections.
John Gray, director of the museum, brought his proposal for an introductory film to Smithsonian Channel in the summer of 2014, and the Channel agreed to make it as a gift. The first film of its kind at any Smithsonian site, "We the People" was an ambitious undertaking. It had to distill the essence of the museum, the nation's history, and its people into a succinct, streamlined narrative.
"The video can help American citizens and visitors from all over the world understand some key ideas and pivotal events in our nation's history," said Jaya Kaveeshwar, senior advisor to the director. "As our visitors explore our unparalleled collection of national treasures and engage with American history, the film helps to knit these experiences together and demonstrate that history matters."
An executive producer for Smithsonian Channel, Linda Goldman admits the project's sprawling scope was daunting, but she emphasizes that the team at the network was honored and excited to contribute.
"It was an opportunity to use our skills as filmmakers and storytellers and combine them with the museum's scholarship and deep knowledge," she said. "We thought it would be a very exciting thing to work together to create a film that was going to be a lasting part of the museum visitor experience."
The year-and-a-half-long process began with extensive research. This involved not only talking to curators and combing collections and archives but also watching introductory films featured in other museums and historical sites, such as Mount Vernon, to understand what makes them effective.
"One of the big questions that we wrestled with early on was, why was this film in this museum?" Goldman said. "What story could the National Museum of American History tell that's unique, that couldn't be a video someplace else?"
Some debate surfaced concerning the film's structure. While Smithsonian Channel filmmakers thought it should be organized chronologically, museum staff countered that it should be organized thematically to mirror the museum's design. As David Allison, associate director for Curatorial Affairs and lead content advisor on the project, pointed out, a thematic approach is appropriate for an institution about American history.
"The United States is a country that is, in fundamental ways, based on ideas," he said. "It's not based on a particular piece of land, not a particular racial or ethnic group. It's a country that was created deliberately based on a Declaration of Independence and on principles."
In the end, they compromised: the film would present a chronological summary of U.S. history as the framework through which to explore specific themes. Allison and scriptwriter Alicia Green worked to fine-tune the central message, perusing museum exhibitions for inspiration. The three recurring concepts that emerged—democracy, opportunity, and freedom—form the backbone of "We the People."
Another way "We the People" distinguishes itself from other orientation videos is by integrating museum objects into its narrative. For example, during the section on the woman suffrage movement, footage of a march is overlaid with the image of an authentic "Votes for Women" pin from the museum's collection.
"There's nothing like being in the presence of an iconic artifact, but there's also something really wonderful about using media and storytelling to help place the artifact in a more historical context," Goldman said. "We're combining images, music, and narration across time and space. They add dimension to the story and hopefully help take people back to the past."
Associate Producer Kiki Spinner and Art Director Catherine Eunice worked closely together to find relevant visuals and assemble them into a cohesive, aesthetically pleasing vision. Sometimes they had to be creative. It was especially difficult to track down quality images of early historical events, before photography had been invented.
"That was a challenge in terms of taking what we found, using the historical documents that we found and integrating them into a visually interesting composition," Eunice said. "If [the images] were low-resolution, we could integrate them into the presentation with many images on the screen at the same time, or we could integrate them into the background."
The filmmakers also struggled with incorporating the Star-Spangled Banner. They knew it had to feature prominently, being an icon of both the country and the museum, but it didn't fit in the required time limit without losing its emotional impact. Instead of telling the full story of Francis Scott Key and the anthem, then, they decided to weave the flag throughout the film as a visual motif.
"It could become a 'fabric of America' analogy in the film that comes back again and again," Green said. "So, the viewer hopefully understands that we're not going to be able to point to one thing that pulls America together but many different things that work as one."
Hard choices surfaced at every turn. It is, after all, impossible to recount the entirety of American history in less than half an hour. A few criteria helped inform decisions about what to include. For starters, the film deviates from the traditional method of tracing history through wars. Some, including World War I, are noticeably missing. According to Allison, this stems less from a wish to be innovative than a desire to accurately represent the museum.
"I understand the importance of how wars are defining episodes in American history," he said. "But we didn't want that to dominate the film because it really doesn't dominate the museum."
Also, in keeping with the themes of democracy, opportunity, and freedom, it was essential for the film to feel relatable. That's why the overarching narrative of politics and conflict is interspersed with segments about inventions and advertising; why the opening consists of bird's-eye views of the American landscape; and why the various famous quotes recited during the video are read by regular people, reminding us that earlier events shape our lives today. The film takes advantage of art's singular power to make the distant past immediate.
Spinner said, "I was very impressed with the Civil War images, being able to find some of those portraits in the montage where you're seeing families after the war and some of the destruction as Reconstruction is happening . . . and being able to say, 'Wow, you know, even though that was such a long time ago, those emotions are very real. People connect to them.'"
All involved attribute the project's success to a strong partnership between the two teams. At each stage of the script and editing, the filmmakers requested feedback from the museum, talking to curators such as Allison and Barbara Clark Smith, the museum’s 18th-century expert, as well as to liaisons, including Kaveeshwar and Valeska Hilbig, deputy director in the Office of Communications and Marketing. Suggestions constantly traveled back and forth. A rough cut of the film was shown to the entire museum staff, who were invited to share comments.
"We wanted the video to be really representative of this museum, and in doing so, we wanted to reach out to the broadest spectrum of voices," Kaveeshwar said. "Just like in every collaborative project, there needs to be a lot of mutual respect and a lot of open thinking."
For now, the only thing left to do is wait and hope the public responds. "We the People" will be shown four times a day during its pilot phase, and museum staff and volunteers will monitor audience response.
Either way, those behind the film are proud of their work. They believe it will enrich visitors' understanding of the museum and American history.
"We hope that people leave feeling energized and inspired and positive about our country," Goldman said. "We hope people will gain new insight that enriches their museum experience, and that they will see how they and their families are also a part of our nation's story. At its core, this country is just a remarkable experiment in many ways. We make history every single day—we all do—and that's the biggest message we hope people take with them."
Amy Woolsey is an intern in the Office of Communications and Marketing.