Roger Kennedy, Former Museum Director, Receives Smithsonian’s Henry Medal

May 4, 2011
Award-winning author and former director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History Roger G. Kennedy was given the prestigious Henry Medal by the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents “in recognition of his many contributions to the Smithsonian Institution as the long-serving, transformational director of its National Museum of American History, and for his lifetime of service to the United States of America.” Kennedy embodied the Smithsonian’s mission to increase and diffuse knowledge with passion and persuasion, and highlighted key events in the nation’s history to explore America’s identity, according to Regents documents.

Kennedy served as director of the National Museum of American History (then known as the Museum of History and Technology) from 1979 until 1992 when he became director emeritus. He worked to transform it into a modern American history museum, and it was renamed the National Museum of American History in 1980. Focusing on America’s diversity, Kennedy encouraged exhibitions such as “After the Revolution,” “Field to Factory” and “A More Perfect Union.” He wrote and presented The Smithsonian Presents Invention, and served as the general editor of the 12-volume The Smithsonian Guide to Historic America.

While director of the National Museum of American History for 13 years, he expanded the collection to encompass a broader range of the nation’s history On his appointment to director emeritus, then-Secretary Robert McCormack Adams said that Kennedy “literally and figuratively transformed our understanding of American culture and history and presented the stories of ordinary Americans, as well as our heroes, to millions of people from around the world.”

Kennedy received his bachelor’s from Yale University in 1949 and graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1952. He has won numerous awards for his books that pertain to American history and architecture. Among the most recent is When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art and Democracy (2009), which formed a major part of the catalog for the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s landmark exhibition “1934.” Other notable publications by Kennedy include Burr, Hamilton and Jefferson: A Study in Character, American Churches and Architecture, Men, Women, and Money.

Kennedy left the Smithsonian in 1992 to continue writing and to work on the Discovery Channel’s 10-part TV series, Roger Kennedy’s Rediscovering America. He was appointed director of the National Park Service by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

The Henry Medal is given by the Board of Regents to individuals in recognition of their distinguished service, achievements or contributions to the prestige and growth of the Smithsonian Institution. The likeness on the medal was probably based on the Clark Mills bust of Henry. The medal was created by William Barber, the engraver of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, and his son Charles E. Barber, in honor of the first secretary, Joseph Henry, whose statue has a place of honor in front of the Smithsonian Institution Building (the “Castle”).