Connections to the past can spark desire to create a brighter future

The date: June 11, 2010. The time: 8:30 a.m. (a shocking hour for a college undergraduate to be anywhere, let alone well-groomed, dressed to the nines, and ready to smile for the camera). The place: a lush courtyard at the University of California, Los Angeles. The event: the Department of History’s commencement, better known as my college graduation, or the first day of the rest of my life.

My plan was to drop everything, move across the country to Washington, D.C., and start my journey to becoming a congresswoman. But as I stood in line, waiting to hear my name called to cross the stage, I realized something: I love history too much to not make it an important part of my life. It had been a favorite subject of mine since grade school (enhanced by my love of my American Girl dolls), but with the guidance of a few key professors, it had turned into an obsession. I simply could not imagine a fulfilling career unrelated to history. In those three hours, on a hazy California morning, I decided to change my life.

D.C. was still the destination, but politics was no longer the goal. I wanted to find a way to marry my passion for studying the past with my desire to help improve our world today. History is too often a least favorite subject, one that can easily seem cold and distant from our modern era. However, I truly believe that, in order to build a better tomorrow, we need to understand our past. I wanted to be a part of that understanding, and the path was clear: go Smithsonian, or go home.

In my time at the museum, I have had the opportunity to learn more than I had ever hoped, both about fund-raising for a cause I am passionate about and the subject that I love. One of my projects has been to create a tour of an exhibit in which a gunboat from the the Revolutionary War—the Philadelphia—is displayed.  The Philadelphia is the oldest surviving American naval ship, sailed and sunk at the Battle of Valcour Island in 1776. In addition to the gunboat itself, the exhibit is home to numerous items found on board, including an intact porcelain tea cup, a pair of knee-buckles from a sailor’s breeches, and a leather shoe. Marveling over these items, I felt a deeply human connection to a war that began 235 years ago. A sailor—possibly with a wife or a sweetheart or a daughter my age, waiting for him at home—drank from that cup, buckled his pants, and slipped on that shoe, before going out to do battle against tyranny and injustice.

NMAH Gunboat Philidelphia
The Philidelphia, on display at the National Museum of American History, continues to inspire visitors and staff alike.

I want to help all generations, from all over the globe, find inspiration to make our world a better place, and I believe that inspiration can be found in remembering past struggles, failures, and glories. And where better to do that than at our own National Museum of American History? Here, exhibits like the gunboat Philadelphia provide curious patrons with a chance to connect with history on a personal level, free of charge and available to all. I cannot be sure where my career will take me, but, as I embark on my life as a “real adult,” I know that I want to work at an organization like the Smithsonian Institution, one that ensures that everyone has the chance to find a connection to the past, a connection that may spark a desire to create a brighter future.

Allison Swislocki is an intern in the Office of External Affairs at the National Museum of American History.