When history meets pop culture: The Jonas Brothers visit the museum

The White House Correspondents Dinner brought quite a number of celebrities to Washington this month. One of the museum’s board members was hosting The Jonas Brothers at the dinner and asked to bring them on a tour of the museum on Sunday morning.

Visitor views the ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz" on exhibit Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Kermit the frog, and the Bunkers’ chairs are among the icons of American popular culture that our visitors want to see. But what happens when some of the biggest stars in pop culture want to visit these icons along with the Star-Spangled Banner and Lincoln’s hat?

Here was the challenge presented to me: keep the visit a secret; conduct the tour during regular museum hours; and don’t close any exhibitions to the public.

I arrived at the museum Sunday, May 2, at 9:45 a.m. As far as I could tell, no word had leaked about the 10:30 a.m. visit. I’d worked with our security office and we were prepared to bring The Jonas Brothers and their guests through our Presidential Reception Suite entrance which can be accessed through an underground parking area.

One of my colleagues, our associate director for external affairs, joined me to await our guests, who included our board member and his family as well as the head of a technology company and his family.

Just after 10:30 a.m., the brothers—Kevin, Joe, and Nick—arrived wearing gray morning suits (they were going to a brunch after the tour) and like many of our visitors, they came as a family group: Kevin’s wife Danielle, Camp Rock co-star Demi Lovato (Joe’s girlfriend), and mom and dad (Kevin, Sr. and Denise Jonas). Unlike our other visitors, they had personal security guards.

Peeking out of the Reception Suite, I saw that the museum had visitors but the coast looked pretty clear to make it to the elevators and up to the second floor to see the Star-Spangled Banner. We commandeered two elevators as there were two dozen people in our group. Just as we were almost in the elevator cabs, I heard someone shout: “The Jonas Brothers!” And the doors closed.

Visitors in the Star-Spangled Banner exhibition 

As songwriters, the brothers were interested in the Star-Spangled Banner, not only as the flag that inspired our national anthem but in learning more about Francis Scott Key and how he came to pen the lyrics to the song that later became the anthem. In Flag Hall, there was no line going into the Star-Spangled Banner exhibition and it was quiet enough for me to explain how Key, an American attorney, came to be aboard a British ship. Through the night, Key paced the deck, wondering who would win the battle at Fort McHenry. Until, in the dawn’s early light, he saw the U.S. flag flying over the Fort. We turned the corner and saw the almost 200-year-old, 15 star, 15 stripe flag.

As we walked towards the exhibit’s exit, the contemplative quiet was shattered by the screams of teenagers. The visit was no longer a secret. The second floor Flag Hall and the third floor balcony were filled with visitors clamoring for The Jonas Brothers. After a quick conference with their security detail, Kevin, Joe, Nick and Demi walked out, shook hands, signed autographs, posed for pictures, and hugged the fans.

The Jonas Brothers greet fans in the Museum's Flag Hall 

And then our group of 24 made it back onto the elevators and up to the third floor. By this time, I thought it would be impossible for them to have a chance to see the popular culture objects. This small gallery often has a line of visitors waiting to see the “real” objects that have entered their lives through the silver or small screen. The stars were aligned for this visit. The gallery was empty. We spent about 5 minutes viewing and talking about the ruby slippers and Kermit, the comedians Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, and the Bunkers’ chairs. (Trivia Note: Archie Bunker’s chair was featured in the movie Night at the Museum II: Battle of the Smithsonian and The Jonas Brothers made a cameo appearance as the voices and faces of the cherubs in that movie).

Nick Jonas was very interested in exploring the life of America’s 16th president, so we spent a solid amount of time in Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life. The gallery had quite a number of visitors, and you could hear the whispers of “The Jonas Brothers” and teens trying to explain to clueless parents who they were. Overall everyone in the gallery was respectful and it was a normal tour.

But at the exit, the crowds had gathered. And once again, the Jonas’ graciously gave autographs and posed for pictures. It was time for brunch and back to the sanctuary of the elevators and to the Reception Suite for goodbyes.

So, you want to know what The Jonas Brothers are really like? They are genuinely nice guys. No airs, no special requests or demands, just appreciative that they had the opportunity to see some of America’s treasures. And they made the day for hundreds of teenagers in the museum that morning.

Melinda Machado is the Director of the Office of Public Affairs at the National Museum of American History.

Posted in Musings