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Next Generation of Historians Joining National Museum of American History

Catherine Eagleton To Strengthen Leadership for Growing Curatorial Division
January 10, 2017

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has named Catherine Eagleton as its new associate director for curatorial affairs with responsibility for more than 130 curators, historians, collections managers and conservators at the nation’s history museum. Eagleton succeeds David K. Allison, a historian of information technology who has been the project director for a number of the museum’s signature exhibitions and who laid the groundwork to expand the museum’s curatorial strength.

Eagleton, who earned her doctorate at the University of Cambridge, brings a broad portfolio of expertise to the museum. Her role will be to strengthen the museum’s scholarly foundation, expand the public’s access to the museum’s collections and lead a division that has added 16 new curators and historians since 2013 across numerous specialties, including American business, medicine, music, numismatics and political history. Eagleton will join the museum Jan. 23 from the British Library, where she served as head of the Asian and African Collections.

Reinvigorating the intellectual framework of the museum is a priority under the leadership of Museum Director John Gray. Through resources provided by a public and private partnership, the museum is hiring the next generation of scholars to develop the most comprehensive and engaging presentation of American history and ensure the stewardship of the national collections. Recent hiring reverses a trend that saw the curatorial force shrink by almost 50 percent between 1992 and 2014.

“As a leader at two of the world’s greatest public and cultural institutions, Dr. Eagleton brings her global historical perspective, her experience in developing innovative exhibitions and deep expertise to increasing the public’s access to our national collection,” Gray said. “We are focused on recruiting the strongest public historians and scholars who are excited by the unparalleled opportunity to connect our audiences with our nation’s treasures to engage them with their American story.”

Before joining the British Library, Eagleton was a curator of modern money at the British Museum, and at both institutions she managed cross-functional teams with scholars, designers, public interpreters and digital specialists. She has been an affiliated research scholar for 12 years at the University of Cambridge’s Whipple Museum of the History of Science and will continue that affiliation when she joins the museum. A musician, Eagleton plays the saxophone and flute among other instruments and performs in a jazz orchestra.

Allison, whose accomplishments include serving as the project director of two cornerstone exhibitions, “American Enterprise,” which opened in 2015, and “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War,” which opened in 2004, will remain at the museum as a senior scholar until his planned retirement in 2019.

The scholarly staff revitalization is a key element of the ongoing transformation across the museum that includes renovating the building, enhancing the exhibition program and broadening the museum’s digital strategy to make its collections more accessible to the public. On June 28, the second floor of the museum’s west exhibition and program wing opens with the theme of “The Nation We Build Together,” and the third floor of the wing, which focuses on American culture, will open in 2018. The floors are dedicated to the fundamental American ideals of democracy, opportunity and freedom and an exploration of American entertainment. American ideals and ideas provide a unifying structure for the museum’s west wing renovation and its exhibitions and programs. Eagleton will use this framework to lead the planning to transform the east wing of the museum through compelling presentations of national treasures and groundbreaking exhibitions in the areas of technology, science and medicine.

Among other new curatorial hires at the museum are three endowed curatorial positions: Amanda B. Moniz, who earned her doctorate in history at the University of Michigan and is the museum’s David M. Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy; Peter Manseau, the Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History, who earned his doctorate in religious history from Georgetown University; and Kathleen Franz, Curator of American Business History, whose doctorate in American Civilization is from Brown University. Federal funding is supporting scholars in military history, music, political history, medicine and science as well as textiles and archival collections. Support from the Smithsonian Latino Center helps fund two positions, while a three-year position on brewing history is made possible through a private donation.  

The museum has also hired staff to work on digitizing collections and in collections management and other curatorial support positions.

To conduct the search for the associate director for curatorial affairs, the museum contracted with Phillips Oppenheim, a firm specializing in recruiting academic and nonprofit leadership positions, and formed a search committee composed of staff, museum board members, Smithsonian scholars and other historians. In addition, finalists made presentations at the museum and held in-depth discussions with the museum’s senior management team and curatorial staff.  

Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history. The museum helps people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future. Located at 12th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., the museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. For more information, visit https://americanhistory.si.edu.

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