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


(Appendix F: Transforming the National Museum of American History, Behring Center)

2. Interpreting History

First and foremost, the National Museum of American History is committed to history -- stories of real people in real places told with real artifacts.

photo of sit-in

Sit-in at the Woolworth's lunch counter, Greensboro, North Carolina, 1960

Our goal is to present history that is:

Informed. Visitors rely on us to provide accurate and current ideas about the past. Therefore, our exhibitions should be informed by the best work of historical scholarship. History is a constantly changing field, with new insights, new interpretations, new topics that speak to our contemporary culture's concerns and interests.

Complex. We know that history is infinitely more complicated than can be captured in a label, in a historical setting, in an exhibition. But visitors need to appreciate the complex forces that have shaped, and continue to shape, America. As our mission statement says, we present "challenging ideas about the American past."

photo of girl with masked figure

Carnival of Ponce, held as part of the exhibition, A Collector's Vision of Puerto Rico


Diverse. Rather than present a master narrative or a simple story of shared experiences, we want to share many stories, from multiple points of view, celebrating the complexity and richness of the American experience. Different voices give us a fuller picture of American history, each story telling us something about all the others.

Accessible. We want visitors to make meaningful connections with the past, to see themselves as connected to history and makers of history. We want to share the process of history -- how we use evidence, what we don't know, how we form historical conclusions, and how our understanding of the past changes. We hope that what visitors learn from us will make them better historians of their own lives, families, communities, and nations.

Our focus is on the theme of American Identity. What has it meant to be an American? How have individuals and communities defined themselves as American? Is there a single American identity or are there many? Early in the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville framed the question in a letter to a friend:

Picture to yourself . . . if you can, a society which comprises all the nations of the world . . . people differing from one another in language, in beliefs, in opinions; in a word a society possessing no roots, no memories, no prejudices, no routine, no common ideas, no national character. . . . What is the connecting link among these so different elements? How are they welded into one people?

But while de Tocqueville asked how the revolutionaries' "E pluribus unum" might be achieved, others questioned whether such a melding was possible. President Theodore Roosevelt thundered: "There is room here for only 100 percent Americanism, only for those who are Americans and nothing else." From a very different American experience came Ralph Ellison's answer: "America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. Our fate is to become one, and yet many -- this is not prophecy, but description."

By considering the historical debates over the nature and meaning of American-ness, we can not only better appreciate our history but also better understand America today. And NMAH has an important role to play in this discussion -- providing historical depth and understanding in a unique setting where Americans from all walks of life can join in.

photo of men in robes

What is the connecting link among these so different elements? How are they welded into one people?
-- Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835


Men in buffalo robes, Fred Hustrand History in Pictures Archive, North Dakota State University, Fargo


While we look at cultural and individual identities -- race, class, religion, gender -- we are also interested in other ways that identity plays out. These include:

  • a sense of place -- America as a place of many places, with special attention to geography, borders, landscapes, and the built environment
  • creating community -- how we create community and maintain a civil society, including politics and government, the armed forces, religion, and civic and cultural organizations
  • generations -- Americans at home and in daily life, from families to stages of life and life passages
  • global connections -- America and the world, including cultural influences and exchanges, international collaboration and competition, and transatlantic communities
  • business and work -- making a living in America, looking not only at who works but what they do and where
  • leisure and entertainment -- America at play, including everything from sports and culture to travel and shopping
  • quest for knowledge -- how Americans know and see, encompassing education, invention and innovation, and human and religious knowledge and values
photo of Kermit

Kermit the Frog, creation of Jim Henson

These and other ideas about identity will inform and shape our exhibitions, linking stories across the Museum and providing opportunities for visitors to explore what it has meant to be an American.

Table of Contents | Appendix F.3. Visitors to NMAH -->