Learning in public: Developing a business and economic history exhibition

Developing a new exhibition is very exciting. For some time, curators at the museum have been discussing a major new exhibition initiative, American Enterprise. As the title suggests the exhibition will explore the United States business history from the 1750s to the 2010s. American Enterprise will trace the benefits, failures, and unanticipated consequences of American economic development by focusing on people—the changing story of how they work and what they eat and buy.

Teapot Clamshell
Left: No Stamp Act teapot c.1768. Right: Clamshell used as emergency money during 1933 banking crisis.

Usually, museum exhibitions are developed behind closed doors—not out of disregard for public input, but because historians tend to triple check information before sharing. And sometimes the exhibition process, although exciting, is messy, with lots of questions, conflicting claims, and few immediate answers. Curators are like history detectives—tracing the stories of objects, hunting down leads, and conducting research that may take months or even years. As the research is developed, exhibitions go through several academic reviews, the show is designed and built, and voilà!—opened to the public. The system works pretty well, but for American Enterprise, we have decided to take a different approach and “learn in public” by taking you on much of the journey with us.

American Enterprise We hope this experiment, made possible by new media, will make the research and exhibition process more open. Starting February 2011, we will share our research trips, the books we are reading, and the artifacts and topics we are considering for the show on a special website. Over the next few years, you will slowly see the American Enterprise exhibition take shape and grow as we fill in gaps in our historical understanding of our nation’s economic history. There will be monthly updates with interesting insights, new information, and probably some false starts. We hope you will engage and comment. You might offer us an important new artifact, share related personal experiences, suggest a topic we have overlooked, and help us test our ideas by participating in surveys.

Developing an exhibition in public view is a little unusual, but we think that your involvement will make the final product better. We want your help. All exhibitions need a central theme to help focus the stories that are told. Here is your chance to make a difference. Please go to the exhibition website and answer a quick poll. What do you think of when you hear the words “economic marketplace”? Please let us know your thoughts about this question and about any other aspect of the exhibition.

Peter Liebhold is Chair of the Division of Work and Industry at the National Museum of American History and a curatorial member of the American Enterprise exhibition team.