“Object Project” Explores Everyday Things That Changed Everything

Hands-on Learning Gallery To Open July 1 at the National Museum of American History
June 18, 2015

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will open a unique hands-on learning space, the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project, July 1. Made possible by philanthropist and education advocate Phyllis Taylor, the almost 4,000-square-foot space in the museum’s new Innovation Wing will focus on “everyday things that changed everything” and will encourage visitors of all ages to discover how the development and use of bicycles, electric refrigeration, ready-to-wear clothing and household items transformed the lives of Americans in ways that shape people’s lives today.

Anchored by a massive array of individual cases—some overhead, others with visitor-activated sound, light and motion effects—“Object Project” will invite visitors to view and interact in different ways with the approximately 250 objects within the 9-by-40-foot sculpture that forms the spine of the learning space. The space is divided into four primary sections: Bicycles, Refrigerators, Ready-to-Wear Clothes and Household Hits, which also includes a customized interactive version of the “The Price Is Right” game show format licensed from FremantleMedia North America Inc. 

“‘Object Project’ will put history into the hands of our visitors, helping them learn about the history of innovation and allowing them to discover connections between innovative ideas and society’s needs,” said the museum’s MacMillan Associate Director for Education and Public Engagement, Judy Gradwohl. “Many familiar objects were innovations that changed everyday life in the past and helped shape American life today.”

 Glass-fronted cases will hold a variety of common objects with unexpected stories, including a Columbia bicycle that was customized by Tiffany & Co. in 1896; bicycle lanterns from the 1880s and 1890s; an early pop-up toaster from the 1920s; a shopping cart from 1937 designed for the Standard Grocery chain; refrigerator dishes designed for leftover food and toys, such as a Pretty Maid toy kitchen from the 1950s; and celebrity paper dolls. In addition, hands-on carts will feature activities that explore when ice cubes were a novelty and hats were commonplace.

Instead of traditional wall text, “Object Project” will invite visitors to use fun and surprising activities and games rich in primary source materials and historical content to uncover for themselves the intriguing stories behind many of the objects taken for granted today. Visitors can sit atop two representative 1880s high-wheel or “ordinary” bicycles and pose for photos. A “magic” oversized scrapbook uses overhead projections to fill its pages with photographs and clippings that materialize and swoop into place on the page. Visitors can unpack the rich history contained in two period refrigerators: a General Electric monitor top from the 1930s and a 1967 Admiral duplex.

Two interactive dressing-room mirrors allow visitors to virtually try on ready-to-wear clothes from the 1890s to the 1980s. A 1920s flapper dress, a boy’s sailor suit, a Woodstock-era t-shirt and jeans are among the outfits.

History Channel produced video components that highlight refrigeration and ready-to-wear. Projected onto the top of a classic kitchen table, entertaining excerpts from promotional and educational films and TV ads capture how refrigerators and the freezer were introduced to consumers. Historic still and moving images play across a dress mannequin to highlight the ready-to-wear clothing story.      

The exhibition will have a full complement of digital resources, including a website where visitors can access the stories and primary source materials found in the museum and some Web-only resources. A teaching poster, apps, inquiry-based classroom activities and videos will begin to roll out for the 2015–2016 school year. On its blog, “Object Project” provides a behind-the-scenes glance into the research, object acquisition, and development of the learning space. A richly illustrated online essay by author and object expert Rob Walker explores how Americans have been particularly venturesome in their adoption and adaptation of innovative things. 

The National Museum of American History helps people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future. For more information, visit http://americanhistory.si.edu. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free.