Report of The Blue Ribbon Commission on the National Museum of American HistorySmithsonian Institution - National Museum of American History

 

I. Transmittal and Summary of Report

BY

THE BLUE RIBBON COMMISSION ON THE
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY

MARCH 2002


FOR:

THE CHIEF JUSTICE OF THE UNITED STATES, CHANCELLOR
AND MEMBERS OF THE BOARD OF REGENTS OF THE
SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION

THE SECRETARY OF THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION

THE UNDER SECRETARY OF THE SMITHSONIAN INSTTITUTION
FOR AMERICAN MUSEUMS & NATIONAL PROGRAMS

THE BOARD OF THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY

THE ACTING DIRECTOR OF THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF
AMERICAN HISTORY


Dear Mr. Chief Justice, Members of the Board of Regents, Mr. Secretary, Madame Under Secretary, Members of the NMAH Board, and Mr. Acting Director:

On June 29, 2001, the Smithsonian announced our appointment by the Board of Regents as members of a Blue Ribbon Commission on the National Museum of American History. We feel privileged to have been asked to serve in this capacity. Our charge was to advise on "the most timely and relevant themes and methods of presentation for the Museum in the 21st century." We were asked to report early in 2002. Accordingly, we are pleased to provide you with this Report.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack of September 11th, Americans have experienced a renewed sense of patriotism. Understandably, they have been interested in affirming what it means to be an American. You appreciate, as do we, that the question, "What does it mean to be an American?" cannot be answered meaningfully without a sense of history -- and history's answers cannot be quite as clear and straightforward as the simply stated question. Most Americans associate America's identity with ideas of freedom, democracy, and opportunity. But, of course, these ideas have meant different things to different people. For some, at times, they have been more aspiration than reality. And they have changed significantly as America itself has changed. The United States was conceived as a creative experiment, requiring practical adaptation over time. That process of adaptation is still underway. It cannot be well understood without reference to what has gone before.

Some of us have been reminded of another traumatic time, when fear of anarchists was high following the assassination of President McKinley. In that context, on December 3, 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt delivered his first State of the Union Address to the Congress. His opening sentence referred to "the shadow of a great calamity." He then described a condition of "grave alarm among all loyal American citizens." After addressing this fundamental concern, he went on to discuss other priorities. High among these was the Smithsonian Institution -- its fundamental mission, its important work, and its "urgent needs" for support. We are inclined to suggest that if the Smithsonian merited such respectful attention and support a century ago -- as it certainly did -- the case for its support (and particularly, support for its National Museum of American History) is even stronger in today's context.

A well-informed sense of American history is of obvious importance. And the National Museum of American History (NMAH) has a fundamental role to play in helping Americans develop that well-informed sense. In fulfilling this role, NMAH has many distinctive strengths: its unrivaled collections, location, well-earned professional reputation, access to both public and private financial support, place of trust in the public mind, and special status as the only national museum of American history.

But the Museum requires what its own leadership has described as a "transformation." It lacks aesthetic appeal, organizational coherence, and the perception of substantive balance. It must address these problems in an especially challenging context. It is in search of a Director. Its urgent needs exceed currently available resources. It has been fortunate to have received large recent donations. But with these has come public controversy about the possibility of excessive donor influence upon the content of the Museum. Amidst one such controversy that disturbed both professionals and donors, a large gift was recently withdrawn. Yet if this controversy were not a focus of current public attention, other difficult issues likely would be. The Museum inescapably must deal with important issues of national identity, which lend themselves to scholarly and political argument. These issues matter. So, the public cares -- often quite intensely. And rightly so: the interpretation of history can itself shape history.

We believe it is important to address the obvious problems the Museum faces. But to do so effectively, we believe it is useful -- probably, essential -- to understand the complexity of the challenges facing the Museum. We, therefore, respectfully commend to you our assessment of "NMAH Strengths, Problems, Constraints, and Challenges" in the section that follows. The list of problems and challenges is long. (Please see Section II.) But we would not want its length to obscure three essential points of perspective:

  • First, because NMAH holds a very special place in American culture, there is a special obligation -- and duty of care -- to be attended to by those who would attempt to help shape its future.
  • Second, even as it is -- even with the long list of problems and challenges -- NMAH is now one of the world's great museums. Our recommendations are intended to build on what is already a very strong base.
  • Third, we believe that the problems and challenges we have identified are difficult, but manageable.

To help address the problems and meet the challenges, we have provided twenty recommendations for your consideration. (Please see Section III.) As you intended, we are a diverse group. Each of us might wish to emphasize one problem or intended solution more than others might wish to do. Some might have been inclined to go farther (or less far) than others in one area or another. This is a natural corollary of our diversity. Yet we have assumed that, in the current context, our work would be most helpful if it enjoyed a wide base of support. We have, therefore, sought to develop consensus recommendations. So, while our individual points of analysis or emphasis would differ somewhat, we are pleased to be able to present you with recommendations that enjoy the full Commission's support. They are grouped in relation to these basic purposes:

  • to improve the architectural and aesthetic setting for exhibits (Section III.B.);
  • to improve visitors' substantive orientation (Section III.C.);
  • to assure appropriate balance in exhibit themes and content (Section III.D.);
  • to increase the Museum's reach (Section III.E.); and
  • to enhance the prospect of effective implementation (Section III.F.).

It is our view that implementing these recommendations would not only help assure that NMAH remains one of the most visited museums in the world, with important and irreplaceable collections that help define the American experience. We believe their implementation would also help assure that the National Museum of American History is aesthetically appealing, intellectually responsible, thematically interesting, educationally effective -- a worthy focus of compelling interest and a justifiable source of national pride.

We thank you for the opportunity to provide our analysis and recommendations to you, and hope you may find them of value.

Respectfully submitted,

RICHARD DARMAN, Chair
TOM BROKAW
ELLSWORTH BROWN
SHEILA P. BURKE, ex officio
SPENCER R. CREW
LONI DING
DAVID HERBERT DONALD
ERIC FONER
DIANE FRANKEL
RAMON A. GUTIERREZ
NEIL HARRIS
K. TSIANINA LOMAWAIMA
ROGER MUDD
DON T. NAKANISHI
CHET ORLOFF
MARC PACHTER, ex officio
WILLIAM F. RUSSELL
RICHARD NORTON SMITH
JOHN KUE WEI TCHEN
CHARLES H. TOWNES
LAUREL THATCHER ULRICH
G. EDWARD WHITE
DON WILSON

(For background on Commission methodology and membership, please see Appendix A.)

Table of Contents | II.A. A Challenging Context -->