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New project explores what it means to be American

This winter, Zócalo Public Square and the National Museum of American History are launching an unprecedented partnership and a new, three-year project: What It Means to Be American. A program with its roots in the new exhibitions that will be opening in NMAH’s West Wing beginning in 2016, this national, multi-platform conversation will bring together Americans from all walks of life to explore big, visceral questions about American identity. Through live public events across the country and our website, Zócalo and the Smithsonian will ask and hopefully find many answers to the question, what does it mean to be American? Project Coordinator Tory Altman shares more.

For me, being American means being the product of an interfaith family, one that brought the traditions of Irish and Ukrainian Catholics under one roof with those of Eastern European Jews. I am one of three sisters who have, at different times in their lives, attended Catholic masses, Unitarian Universalist services, Jewish Youth Groups and synagogues, and a Presbyterian congregation. My ancestors in other parts of the world would be shocked to hear these things. But, here in the United States, mine is not an uncommon story.

Three young daughters and father at Passover

My sisters, my dad, and me, at an Altman family Passover in the late 1980s. I’m the baby in the yarmulke, a traditional head covering worn by Jewish men.

Working at the museum, where we interpret history through objects, one of the first questions that pops to mind, then, is what sort of things do I have that embody that identity? My great-grandfather, Samuel Altman, came to the United States from the region that is now Romania in about 1911. An Orthodox Jew, he set up shop as a furrier in New York City. I have his tfelin, the straps of leather and wooden blocks that Orthodox Jewish men wrap around their arms and heads when they pray.

Tfelin on fabric from carrying case

These are tfelin, leather straps attached to wooden blocks that Orthodox Jewish men wrap around their heads and arms when they pray. This set is sitting on the velvet drawstring bags they are kept in.

My grandfather’s and father’s lives were very different from Samuel’s, theirs far more inflected by the complexities of America’s openness. But that’s the thing about objects, about heirlooms. Even though I never met him, having my great-grandfather’s tfelin means having a piece of family history that is still a part of me, and gives breadth and color to my identity.

That’s just my story, but there are many others.

All across the United States, our homes and our communities, our interests and our values, our experiences and our opportunities define who we are as individual Americans. These unique outlooks often put us in stark opposition with some of our fellow Americans, and in perfect sympathy with others. But in a nation of over 300 million inhabitants, what is it that makes us all American at the same time?

"What It Means to Be American" logo

The conversation has already begun on our What It Means to Be American website, where Smithsonian curators Harry Rubenstein, Barbara Clark Smith, and others have begun introducing us to some of the objects that reflect American values and tell American stories.

Two of my favorites:

Find these and many more articles available on the site, with new articles, new perspectives on this question, published every Tuesday and Friday.

Our first program kicks off in Phoenix, Arizona, in January, where former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and CEO of Girl Scouts USA Anna Maria Chávez will discuss The Women of the West. More events in other cities will be announced soon. And all programs will be video recorded and available for viewing on the What it Means to Be American website. We hope to see you all online and in person! We cannot have a conversation without many voices.

Join the conversation on Twitter using #WIMTBA

Posted in Public Programs