Brent Glass, Director of the National Museum of American History, Announces Retirement

June 26, 2011
Updated June 30, 2011

Brent Glass, 64, has announced he will retire from the Smithsonian. He is leaving his position as director of the National Museum of American History effective August 12; he will continue at the Smithsonian as a senior advisor through the end of this year.

“It has been an honor and joy to further the Smithsonian mission for the past nine years by working to increase awareness of American history and national memory,” Glass said. “I am enormously proud of the museum staff and their team efforts. We transformed the museum and created a new public square on the National Mall. We acquired new collections, created more than 50 exhibitions and hundreds of public programs, and launched innovative online projects. We have enjoyed record attendance, and visitors love the museum.”

“Now, after more than 35 years in government service, I am leaving in response to expanding opportunities to promote history education, historical literacy and public memory nationally and internationally,” he added.

“Under Brent’s leadership, the museum has been transformed,” said Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough. “The response to the museum’s revitalization has been overwhelmingly positive, with more than twice as many visitors as before. One of the most successful accomplishments has been the revitalization of the museum’s public spaces, allowing them to come alive with historic theater, public programs and moving U.S. citizenship ceremonies in Flag Hall twice a year.”

Glass has served as director of the museum since 2002 and overseen the most extensive renovation of the museum in its history, the conservation of the Star-Spangled Banner and the installation of major new exhibitions on transportation, maritime history, military history and first ladies’ gowns. Glass considers the renovation of the core of the building, completed in 2008, to be the highlight of his nine years at the Smithsonian.

The Museum of American History is the third-busiest museum in the Smithsonian complex with more than 4 million visitors in 2010. It has a staff of 250, an annual federal budget of about $30 million and about 3 million artifacts. During Glass’ tenure, the museum has raised more than $60 million from individuals, foundations and corporations.

The museum is famous for some of its key artifacts: the Star-Spangled Banner that flew over Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812 and inspired the words of the national anthem; the Woolworth’s lunch counter where African American students staged the first sit-in protest in Greensboro, N.C.; Lincoln’s top hat, worn to the theater the night he was assassinated; Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz; Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves; Julia Child’s kitchen; extensive jazz collections from Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald; and the portable desk Thomas Jefferson used when he wrote the Declaration of Independence.

In 2004, the museum opened “Separate Is Not Equal: Brown v. Board of Education” to mark the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking Supreme Court decision that ended legal segregation in schools. It was accompanied by a number of public programs to explore the question of what equal opportunity means in today’s diverse world. In 2009, a new changing gallery devoted to African American history opened in collaboration with the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

During Glass’ tenure, the museum expanded its exhibitions and public programs related to Latinos: In 2005, the museum opened a major exhibition on the life and music of Celia Cruz (1924-2003) with costumes, videos and recordings commemorating the influence of the Cuban-born “queen of salsa.” The following year, American History launched the Bracero History Project to collect, document and exhibit the history of the Emergency Farm Labor Program in California (1942-1964), which allowed more than 4.5 million Mexicans to work in the United States.

The museum is continually adding to its collection. Among the recent acquisitions were 10 original puppets from Jim Henson’s Sam and Friends, a local TV show that later became The Muppet Show; Glenna Goodacre’s design for the Sacagawea dollar coins issued by the U.S. mint; the crash-test dummy costumes (“Vince and Larry”) that appeared in driving public-safety campaigns for more than a decade; and Eddie Van Halen’s “Frank 2” guitar.

Among the milestones of Glass’ tenure at the museum are:
  • Renovation—The $85 million renovation of the building took nearly 2½ years, but when it reopened in November 2008, it included an entirely new core with a dramatic skylight and glass staircase opening up the atrium; a new exhibition of the Star-Spangled Banner; artifact walls on two floors with cases that allow the museum to show hundreds of objects; a welcome center; and a documents gallery that displays special documents of all kinds, from the last-known draft of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s own handwriting to the joke files of comedian Phyllis Diller.
  • During the two-year renovation that closed the museum, Glass led an effort to maintain visibility with appearances on The Colbert Report and Oprah Winfrey’s show and through a new exhibition, “Treasures of American History,” at the National Air and Space Museum.
  • America on the Move—The first major exhibition to open under the leadership of Glass (November 2003) was a new transportation hall that told the story of railroads, water and air travel with a special focus on America’s love of cars and highways featuring a section of 1932 pavement from Route 66, a 1967 Pontiac Grand Prix convertible and an original 1903 Winton touring car.
  • Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation—This center expanded after the renovation and now showcases changing exhibits about creators and their inventions, from robots to microwaves, the “Invention at Play” exhibit and the nearby “Spark!Lab” where children work on science experiments.
  • The Price of Freedom—Opening on Veterans Day 2004, this major permanent exhibition demonstrates “how wars have been and continue to be defining episodes in our national life,” as Glass said at the time. Artifacts from the museum’s extensive military history collection cover the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, Vietnam (symbolized by a Huey helicopter) and conflicts in Iraq and the Gulf region.
  • First Ladies exhibition—Glass presided over First Lady Michelle Obama’s inaugural gown donation ceremony in March 2010. The dress became the most popular attraction in the new gallery, “A First Lady’s Debut,” featuring dresses of 11 modern first ladies and located next to the “First Ladies at the Smithsonian” exhibition.
Before joining the Smithsonian, Glass served for 15 years (1987–2002) as executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in Harrisburg, Pa., which included 25 sites. He oversaw major expansion and renovation projects at several historic sites and museums around the state and led an effort to conserve the Pennsylvania Charter and other important documents and artifacts.

He earned his doctorate in philosophy and history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his master’s degree in American Civilization at New York University and a bachelor’s degree at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.

He currently serves as a member of the U.S. Flight 93 Memorial Advisory Commission, the State Department’s U.S.–Russia Bilateral Commission Working Group on Culture and Education and as a trustee of Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.

An acting director for the museum will be appointed in August. Glass will serve as Senior Advisor to the Office of the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. A national search for a new director for the museum will begin immediately, headed up by Richard Kurin, Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture with the assistance of an executive search firm.