Using history to inspire Americans to participate in democracy

As I walk into the museum each morning, I notice which figures in our Hooray for Politics display are holding their signs for presidential candidates aloft. Unlike most museum displays, Hooray for Politics will change as the field of presidential candidates narrows. When a candidate suspends or ends his or her campaign, the sign for that candidate will be lowered. Watching the display change in step with political reality is especially interesting in a space filled with election objects of long ago. The historic pieces of voting equipment on display, such as three 1940s voting booths, are injected with new urgency and dynamism. Hooray for Politics makes me want to get out and support causes I care about—and that is exactly what it was designed to do, says John Gray, the Elizabeth MacMillan Director of the National Museum of American History. To learn more about how the museum will focus on participation this election year, I asked Director Gray a few questions.

Display in which figures hold up contemporary campaign signs for presidential candidates while standing among historic objects related to voting, such as 1940s voting booths

Display in which figures hold up contemporary campaign signs for presidential candidates while standing among historic objects related to voting, such as 1940s voting booths

How do you think our visitors will react to seeing signs for contemporary political candidates on display among historic voting booths in Hooray for Politics?
People come here to find themselves in history. When visitors see Hooray for Politics, they'll get a sense of the incredible value of their own participation, whether that's through voting or in campaigning for causes or candidates. The display will certainly spark conversation, and that's part of what we want to do. We want to focus on participation in a way that is more reflective, more conversational, and aimed at developing a more profound understanding of American history, which is fundamental. If you want to participate in America, you have to understand where you came from and who you are so you can decide your own future.

What are you most looking forward to this year as we focus on participation?
It's an election year, so this is a perfect time to host discussions on participation and inspire our visitors to engage in active, equal participation in order to ensure a more humane future.

When you enter the museum on our Constitution Avenue side, you'll see our Hooray for Politics display of historic voting booths along with figures holding signs, as if rallying support for contemporary presidential candidates. Every time a candidate drops out, we're going to modify the display to illustrate the narrowing of the field, providing a much longer view of how politics actually works. Then when you continue past the lobby to visit the American Presidency or the First Ladies' gowns on the third floor, you discover more context for our political process today. In 2017, we'll open American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith and Many Voices, One Nation on our second floor, and that will continue the story.

During election years, candidates and political parties try to simplify politics—they have set speeches, set language, set messages—but ultimately it's most important to understand the underlying issues in their great complexities and nuances. And the museum is a place where people can gain that understanding and benefit from that context.

For people who visit or engage with the museum this year, it sounds like they'll be hearing a lot about the importance of participating in democracy. Are we encouraging people to vote?
Absolutely. There is no doubt that one of the greatest things we can do is help people believe that engagement in their country—including voting, including philanthropy—is the most American thing they can do. And I hope we do inspire people.

We've talked a lot about political participation. When you think of less overtly political objects in our collection that tell participatory stories, which ones come to mind?
The most obvious one is the Star-Spangled Banner flag, which inspired Francis Scott Key to write the words to the song that would become our national anthem. When you learn about the flag, you discover participatory stories that relate to war, economic systems, and the symbolic creation of America.

American flag

Another object rich in connections to participation is the Red River cart, on display in American Enterprise. Used in the mid-19th century fur trade, the cart can tell stories of the diverse peoples of the Minnesota and the Dakota Territory, the changing economic system of the time, the development of our national identity, and more.

For the next year, we're really focusing on participation in politics, philanthropy, and economics, and in these evocative objects, you can see how those come into focus through the lens of participation. But it's rare to find an object in our collection that doesn't have a connection with participation in America.

Wooden cart with two wheels with axle and box space for cargo

What has participation meant in your own life?
Aside from my job, which has me participating in national discussions in all kinds of ways, I have participated both politically and on social and economic causes that can have a real, positive impact. Causes where you're actually trying to help people—that's where I've felt the most value, and, hopefully, had the most impact.

You've convinced me that participation is a really important theme for the museum to take on, but can you talk about what you hope we achieve as we explore this year's theme with the public?
Citizen participation is one of the fundamental elements of a democratic nation. How you participate goes right to the heart of how you establish who you are, how you reach out to others, how you think of yourself. In America, we value participating by electing our government, by voting, by staying informed on domestic and international events, and even by joining community sports teams. This year we we'll investigate how Americans share in building a better nation and a better community through the lens of participation. Our goal is to use history to increase understanding of who we are as a nation and as a people.

Graphic with text "America Participates" and circle in which half is red and half is blue

Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department.