Report of The Blue Ribbon Commission on the National Museum of American HistorySmithsonian Institution - National Museum of American History


II. A Challenging Context—NMAH Strengths, Problems, Constraints, and Challenges

A. A National Treasure

The Smithsonian has often been described as a national treasure -- not only as suggested by President Theodore Roosevelt a century ago, but also by millions of visitors who have since come from across America and around the world to explore its wonders. Within the Smithsonian, the National Museum of American History (NMAH) has itself earned the same favorable description. In both public perception and fact, it is a national treasure. As such, it is unquestionably worthy of all that the phrase "national treasure" implies: pride, preservation, protection, respect, support, and creative attention.

The National Museum of American History is distinctive in several important respects:

  • NMAH is America's only national museum of American history.
  • NMAH is America's largest history museum. It currently has about 200,000 square feet of exhibition floor space. Its collections are comprised of more than three million objects, which occupy an additional 265,000 square feet of storage space.
  • NMAH's collections amount to a unique and irreplaceable representation of America's social, cultural, scientific and technological history. They include some of the most important -- and some of the most popular -- American reminders and artifacts. Among these, for example, are Thomas Jefferson's desk, on which he drafted the Declaration of Independence; and the Star-Spangled Banner, which flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became America's national anthem. The collections range widely: from a Samuel Morse telegraph and the Lewis and Clark compass to Duke Ellington's sheet music; from John L. Sullivan's bare-knuckle championship prize fighting belt to Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves; from a two-and-a-half ton Mormon sunstone to fragile ceramics; from unrivaled collections of scientific and medical instruments to the wooden puppet, Howdy Doody; from early locomotives and streetcars to Richard Petty's stock car and Lance Armstrong's bicycle; from the Woolworth's lunch counter at which protesters sat in the Greensboro sit-in of 1960 to the chairs that Archie and Edith Bunker filled in All in the Family. (For an overview of the NMAH collections, please see Appendix B.) If NMAH were no more than a repository for these collections, that fact alone would assure its status as an extraordinary national treasure.
  • NMAH is, of course, much more than a mere repository. Its collections are studied, protected, enhanced, interpreted, and exhibited by a staff of professionals who enjoy a high degree of respect among their peers. Committed to both scholarship and education, they are themselves a valuable national resource.
  • NMAH enjoys one of the most desirable locations in America. It is at the heart of the national mall, in dramatic proximity to the Washington Monument, with direct views of the Smithsonian castle and the Lincoln Memorial.
  • NMAH also enjoys a special place of trust in American culture. Its national charter and association with America's identity have given it a special claim. Generation after generation of teachers and parents lead what amount to pilgrimages to Washington. Their purpose is typically to acquaint each rising generation with a deeper sense of what it means to be "American." And NMAH is often viewed as an essential station on the intended journey of education and inspiration. Indeed, it is said that a typical visitor will come to NMAH thrice in a lifetime: once as a child with parents; again as a parent with children; and then again as a grandparent with grandchildren. This may not be literally correct. But it serves to underline the special place that NMAH may hold in American culture.
  • NMAH is the third most visited museum in the world. Prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, it was visited at a steadily increasing rate that exceeded six million visits per year. In the aftermath of September 11th, the number of visits has fallen sharply. But the upward trend is expected to resume as confidence in air travel and travel to Washington is restored.
  • Last, but not least, NMAH is the beneficiary of both public and private financial support. Given NMAH's special mission and place as America's only national museum of history, it seems unlikely that either the Congress or major private donors would allow the Museum's support to fall below a minimum necessary level. The current level of support is not sufficient to achieve the potential that we and many others envision. But it does at least provide a significant and relatively secure base on which to build.

For all these reasons, NMAH can reasonably be assumed to have a promising future. Its collections, its location, its professional staff, its special place of trust, its access to public and private support -- all these strengths assure that Americans will hope and expect that the Museum should meet a very high standard of excellence. These evident strengths also increase the probability that NMAH -- along with the many public and private constituencies that support it -- may muster the vision, resources, and leadership necessary to meet the high hopes and expectations it has earned.

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