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Smithsonian Secretary Skorton's introduction to our new wing, The Nation We Build Together

I had the pleasure of participating in the grand opening of the museum’s impressive new wing, The Nation We Build Together. The design of the displays brings the exhibition themes to life, allowing visitors to learn, see, hear, and experience how Americans have come together over time to create our country. I wanted to share a few of my early impressions, both for those planning to visit in person and also for those who will experience these stories through our websites, blogs, and social media.

Photograph of Skorton welcoming visitors at the opening of the new wing. He is joined by two museum staffers dressed in Statue of Liberty costumes.

The four exhibitions in this new wing—American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith; Many Voices, One Nation; Religion in Early America; and Within These Walls—trace a 500-year journey into our past and show how our ideals and ideas have evolved through the 21st century. The galleries invite us to view precious national treasures and explore our early history, allowing us to reflect on our own ideas and perceptions.

The displays encourage us to think about what it means to be American, to participate in the democratic process, and to vote. Most of us over 18 have experience in casting our ballots. But the principles of self-government to which we are accustomed in America are not universal rights: they were conceived by our forebears and realized through a bold experiment that has been sorely tested at times, but endures. Seventy-five years after the Constitution was ratified, Abraham Lincoln, speaking on the war-ravaged battlefield of Gettysburg, promised a country torn by conflict and heartbreak that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

And today, more than two centuries later, this “experiment” lives on.

In the exhibitions and educational spaces of The Nation We Build Together, we come face to face both with famous figures and also those who were less celebrated. All have shaped our history in ways both subtle and profound. Many voices contribute to American life, whether they enjoyed opportunities, overcame challenges, encountered social and cultural change, or suffered the heartbreak of war or economic hardship.

We recognize ourselves, our ancestors, and our families’ stories in these exhibitions. The artifacts on display—sports memorabilia, eating utensils, works of art—can evoke nostalgia or curiosity on a personal level, and they show that our culture is and has always been one that evolves when it comes in contact with new cultures.

Collage of photographs of objects and displays from the exhibition "Many Voices, One Nation." Top left: Carl Yastrzemski's red baseball helmet; Bottom Left Jimmie Crutchfield's black baseball cleats; Right: The "Sports" case in the exhibition, with the two objects in display.
Photograph of the interior of the "Religion in Early America" exhibition.

These stories of community and struggle remind us that American democracy is strong and resilient, flexible enough to survive challenge and open enough for us to share in a common purpose. Here are two of my favorite examples I got to see on a recent tour:

Photograph of a section of the Greensboro Woolworth's lunch counter, on display in the museum's Unity Square.

A studio photograph of Susan B. Anthony’s red shawl.

We are reminded every day by the news and through social media that changes to American society are often feared, that we can be divided by strongly held opinions and opposing perspectives. From my perspective, though, although change can sometimes cause discord and uncertainty, fierce debate and robust citizen engagement have always driven the progress and dynamism that defines America. These exhibitions celebrate the role that all of the nation’s residents play in our democracy.

The American story has many chapters. Through these new exhibitions and others in all of our museums, through all of our research and educational activities, the Smithsonian tries to tell the full story. Our exhibitions, research, collections, and programs have evolved to keep pace with our ever-changing country. These exhibitions exemplify the solid research, commitment to objectivity, and dedication to open and civil discourse that guide the Smithsonian and that have proven to be crucial to our democratic system.

Dr. David J. Skorton is the 13th Secretary of the Smithsonian.