Is America exceptional? A business history curator's perspective

By Peter Liebhold
A photograph of the exhibition's Merchant Era section, featuring a red river cart

How appropriate that the day after a story describing the work culture at Amazon made national news, the Wall Street Journal published Edward Rothstein's review of the Smithsonian's new business history exhibition–American EnterpriseThis coincidence of timing proves the Smithsonian's point that American capitalism is an important topic affecting all citizens of the United States.

Photograph of the exhibition's Merchant Era section with Red River Cart

As a curator of the National Museum of American History's exhibition, I believe that the print version of Rothstein's article, with its headline, "A People's History of American Business," rather than the online "A Skewed History of American Business," better reflects the point of the show. The exhibition is a new interpretation of business history that puts the average citizen (the consumer) squarely in the center of the picture. This is, after all, an exhibition for all Americans. American Enterprise succeeds in presenting a complicated story in a public museum. It chronicles the tumultuous interaction of capitalism and democracy that resulted in the continual remaking of American business and American life. The exhibition presents the benefits of American business, which have been extraordinary, along with its failures and unanticipated consequences. America is a great country because its economic system has benefited many, but it is far from perfect.

The exhibition is intended to be a thoughtful exploration. It presents provocative moments, respects the visitor's ability to make their own decisions, and argues that the United States is built on the dynamic tension between opportunity (capitalism) and common good (democracy.) In a recurring exhibition element called "Debating Enterprise," famous individuals duke it out over the role of business in America. Agriculturalist and states' rights advocate Thomas Jefferson argues with Alexander Hamilton, who pushes for a national industrial policy and a strong federal government (sound like a familiar debate?). Elsewhere the likes of Louis Brandeis, Ayn Rand, Robert Reich, and even Ivan Boesky get a seat at the table.

Photo of napkin with handwritten text on it

Spectacular objects from three centuries of American history give material substance to the story of American business—something only the Smithsonian can do. A rare Edison talking doll provides insight into how Americans' cultural willingness to forget failure and remember success allows icons like Thomas Edison to take risks and stoke innovation. The often talked about but almost never seen Laffer curve napkin was pulled from the safety deposit box of Wall Street Journal editor Jude Wanniski (1936-2005), gifted to the nation, and exhibited along with Milton Friedman's briefcase to illustrate how Reaganomics helped define the Global Era. The exhibition allows visitors to decide for themselves whether deregulation and supply-side economics are good or bad. A museum should be a safe place for debate and American Enterprise allows visitors to engage in important conversations.

Rothstein is uncomfortable with "history 'from below'." He appears to question the notion of diversity—not of color but of fame and class. In the 21st century, an exhibition should highlight both famous and lesser-known Americans, who all have compelling business stories to tell. Our museum surveys show conclusively that visitors come to see themselves and understand how they fit into history. The exhibition's biography wall, which includes more than 80 "capsule biographies," is designed as a catalyst for engaging visitors and not a pedantic history textbook. Yes, the text is short, but it is readable and engaging. Visitors who want more can pull out their smartphones and learn more while still in the museum. Among others on the biography wall are organic food entrepreneurs Myra and Drew Goodman (founders of Earthbound Farms)—just feet away from genetic engineering and sustainability advocate Robert Fraley (inventor of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans). Financial wizard Warren Buffett smiles at restauranteur Dora Escobar, who escaped a grim life in El Salvador and eventually built a number of small businesses in the U.S. These are all great stories of interesting people and the quest for the American dream, through our system of capitalism and democracy.

Photo of exhibit wall with portraits of people and text boxes with bios

Rothstein worries that the exhibition does not detail the exploits of businesses from around the world. The exhibition explicitly points out that American business was international from the colonial era onward. Importantly, we intentionally focused on what is distinctive about American business and why it is exceptional. For over 150 years, our nation has been a leading and vibrant economy. American Enterprise explores our unique mix of labor, wealth, power, success, and failure. 

Photograph of the exhibition's Global Era section

Our main point is that American capitalism is central to who we are as a nation, and as a people. We want visitors to decide for themselves the degree to which innovation and competition have provided opportunity and fueled the common good. The exhibition clearly caused Rothstein to do some deep thinking. Come visit American Enterprise and explore the history of American business along with us. If you can’t make it to Washington, D.C., you can see the exhibition online or read the companion book.

Peter Liebhold is a co-curator of the American Enterprise exhibition and chairs the Work and Industry Division at the National Museum of American History.