Participating in America means constantly striving for a more perfect union

By Jordan Grant
Museum case containing woman's gown, marble bust, nurse's cap, and small painting. Each item has a label.

America Participates is the museum's 2016 theme: But what does "participation" actually look like? We interviewed David Allison, director of curatorial affairs, about where he finds compelling stories of participation in the museum's collections, exhibitions, and his own life.

"America Participates" graphic in black, red, and blue

Why is it important for a history museum to bring greater attention to participation?

We say on the first floor of the museum in the Innovation Wing that America itself is an innovation. It was an innovation that a country would govern itself. But to succeed—and the founders knew this—the government required people to be educated, motivated, and willing to give back and participate in their society, else it would fail. Thomas Jefferson designed the University of Virginia in his retirement, and that's an example of the importance he placed on having an educated, literate citizenry. So as a history museum designed to help people understand what it means to be American, what's distinctive about America, this notion of helping our visitors see that participating in the country is essential to making the democracy we live in viable and successful.

Museum case containing woman's gown, marble bust, nurse's cap, and small painting. Each item has a label.

American Enterprise is one of the exhibitions in our Innovation Wing that you worked on. Can you talk about the connection between business pursuits and participation?

Most businesses in America are small business, and America depends on people mostly being responsible for themselves. Our country is dependent on individual initiative with limited government, which provides a safety net, but society depends on you making your own way, being responsible for yourself, and taking risks. That may mean going to school to learn something new, starting a business, or bringing a new idea to the table.

We tend to think of participation as giving back but sometimes participation is just making your own way and being responsible for yourself, and that's not true in every society around the world. This requires a society that is constructed to help you participate by making your own way and not prevent you from doing that. Issues we've had with sexism, racism, discrimination of many sorts, have needed to be corrected so you can have equality and opportunity for people to make their own way.

American flag with white and red stripes. On blue panel, only four white stars.

We've talked about a lot of positive aspects of participation in America. But those haven't always been available to everyone. What about barriers to participation?

One of the things we recently opened here is our new introductory film We the People, which takes the perspective that we're a nation that is striving for fundamental ideals. But the important word there is "striving." Our ideals are democracy, opportunity, and freedom, but we point out over and over in that film that this is constantly full of conflict. For example, people come here believing that there will be opportunity for them in America and find that they're blocked, so they have to agitate, they have to fight, they have to get involved. This is most notable in moments such as the civil rights movement and woman suffrage. But it also happens in the professional sphere, when people create professional organizations to change things. Even though we want to become a more perfect union we'll never become the perfect union.

Glass bottle with short neck. Label text: "Dougherty's Pure Private Rye Stock Whiskey."

In that process of striving, things do fail. In American Enterprise, we tell the story of Prohibition. Today we ask, "How could that possibly have seemed like a good idea?" But in fact, drunkenness was a huge problem in America society. The people who pushed for Prohibition were well-intentioned, trying to solve a social problem that they thought was destroying families. The solution turned out to be wrong for our society but I will say that the issue hasn't gone away. Today we probably wouldn't pass another amendment to the Constitution to address the problem of alcohol and drug abuse, but it doesn't mean we've solved it.

In February, we commemorated the Day of Remembrance. We remember how Japanese Americans had their citizenship taken away from them or questioned during World War II. We remember that Japanese American incarceration was an abuse of the Constitution to raise the consciousness that it could happen again and we can't forget that.

Is participation an important part of your life or career? What does participation mean to you personally?

I'm a big supporter of the Salvation Army, I'm very active in my church, I believe that giving to my alma mater helps young people have the college experience that was so meaningful in my life. I feel strongly about the Combined Federal Campaign, which I think is a great opportunity for federal employees to make charitable donations. I was one of the founders of the Society for History in the Federal Government, created when we felt federal historians needed to be more organized. I've taught children with disabilities at various times in my life. Like everybody, my participation in causes and so on is episodic. The important thing is that giving is not just money, it's giving your time, giving your talent, and sometimes your resources.

Participation in early American history often came through religious organizations. What do you think led to that dynamic?

We are currently working on an exhibition opening in 2017 about religion in early America. It's hard for us to remember now but there was a big debate when the country was founded as to whether there would be an established church, a government-supported church, in America. When the founders decided in passing the first amendment that we would not have an established religion at the national level, many people thought that would lead to a decline in churches in America. But in fact it opened up a world of growth. Even today, for many Americans, it's the religious or spiritual part of their lives which is the most involved with giving back—not for everybody, but for many people in America, that is part of their experience.

Will the museum collect more objects related to participation and giving?

We're looking to collect some of those big thermometer signs that people have used in civic campaigns to show the amount of money or resources raised towards a goal. They're not as popular as they used to be, but for a long time in American history, almost every year you could find a thermometer in your community that illustrated funds raised for the hand, the local hospital. Ordinary Americans would see that thermometer go up in their community and be inspired to donate toward that goal. We're also trying to think critically about how the material culture of giving reflects the diversity of the American people.

Sign in shape of church with steeple. Levels of donations listed on steeple.

Our 2015 theme was Innovation. Is there a connection between that theme and America Participates?

Americans have been very innovative in figuring out how to participate. Take examples like Kickstarter campaigns, online giving, and crowdsourcing. Our society readily applies new technologies and ways of interacting to our interest in giving back. The Smithsonian Transcription Center is an example of that—you can transcribe information off of 19th-century currency from your own home while watching the news. It turns out voting is one of the areas in which we've been in some ways less innovative but my guess is that will change in the next 20 years.

Voting ballot on light blue paper. Icon of elephant and donkey.

Erin Blasco and Jordan Grant work in the museum's New Media department.