A new home for innovation on the National Mall

Do you ever wonder how your National Museum of American History conceptualizes and then creates the exhibitions and programs that so many Americans find valuable and exciting? We have an ongoing process of invention and innovation.

Our museum is in the middle of a major reinvention and rebuilding process for our large home on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. We have taken this amazing opportunity to innovate all of our programs and exhibitions. With the rapid changes in technology and your expectations as a visitor, we have to work harder and more creatively to meet and, in some ways, lead these ongoing changes. This three-phased renovation and reinvention of our museum will rebuild the galleries and all public spaces to better tell the inclusive and complex story of America. The first phase in 2008 resulted in the great re-installation of our Star-Spangled Banner and renovation of our two entrances and lobbies (on Constitution Avenue and Madison Drive). This revitalized museum "core" provides a host of new amenities to orient and welcome our visitors.

For the second phase, our entire West Wing has been closed to the public. All three floors were gutted, and we are now in the final stages of construction and preparation for the installation of the exhibitions. The three floors, featuring all-new exhibitions and programs, will open sequentially over the next few years. The first floor will open this July.

So how did we decide on these new exhibitions and programs, considering the enormous breadth of American History? How could we make American History accessible and really fascinating? How could we hook our visitors on the numerous stories of our past?

Exhibition rendering ilustration

We used a carefully deliberated process to identify what subjects and what stories were going to be included. Let me expand on this. First, we determined that the overarching ideas and ideals of America could and should be the organizing framework for the West Wing. In our everyday lives, we live with those ideas and look to those ideals to guide us, so this seems like the obvious framework. But you can imagine how many ideas and ideals of America were discussed, argued, investigated, and considered. We then used our great collections of the most iconic objects to frame the stories chronologically. We also had to determine that the context for the time and the place had to integrate global history. After much reading and debate, and thoughtful consideration, we settled on four key expansive ideas that also, inherently, would be our ideals: Innovation, Democracy, Diversity, and Culture.

The first important idea is Innovation, which is broadly defined to include invention and creativity and incorporates almost every aspect of our history and our present. Through innovation, our Founders created a representative form of government, which we broadly call Democracy. Through innovation, we developed a currency system that has led the world. Our cities proved to be Places of Invention, where, for multiple, interrelated reasons, all tied to our history, they became world-wide leaders in innovation in areas as diverse as medicine and movies. Our education system is constantly innovating to reach the needs of an ever-changing world. So when you come to visit, or explore our website, you will see how the very idea of innovation pervades and supports the ways in which we have lived and will live.

Exhibition rendering for "The Value of Money" in the Gallery of Numismatics

Three new exhibitions highlighting these facets of innovation will be opening on the first floor. The Smithsonian's first-ever exhibition on business history, American Enterprise, will open in the Mars Hall of American Business. The Value of Money will debut in the Gallery of Numismatics. Places of Invention will be the centerpiece of the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Hall of Invention, which will also feature Inventive Minds. The first floor will also house Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project, an activity-based learning space that explores how the interplay between people, innovative things, and social change shaped life as we know it; Wegmans Wonderplace, for the younger learners; and Draper Spark!Lab, for families with children over six, as well as our Archives Center and the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology.

This broad idea of innovation is encapsulated by the "Father of Video Games," Ralph Baer, whose workshop will be directly in your line of sight as you enter the first floor.

Art Molella, Director of the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, has written eloquently on our blog about Ralph and the many roles he played as a great American innovator, and we honor him, as well as all those who have made America such a dynamic nation.

Again, the very content for this floor of American History is organized to have many layers, many interconnected ideas, and thousands of objects, but always around perspectives and histories of innovation. We share complicated stories, those in which innovation negatively impacted some while benefiting others. While we believe that over time American prosperity is the result of innovation, it has been disruptive, and that is also explored on this floor.

Rendering of "Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project"

And we continue, planning for our other three larger, interconnecting ideas and ideals of Democracy, Diversity, and Culture. Three exhibitions touching on these themes are American Democracy: The Great Leap of FaithMany Voices, One Nation; and On With the Show!, which will open over the next three years. This will complete our reinvention and transformation of the West Wing, and we will then turn to the East Wing. Again, we are using a process of innovating how to present collections to help us all understand and love our American History.

Thus our year of Innovation is now, 2015, all in celebration of the opening of the first floor of the West Wing. We urge you to come, think, listen, and express yourselves, at your National Museum of American History.

John Gray is the Elizabeth MacMillan Director of the National Museum of American History.