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


(Appendix F: Transforming the National Museum of American History, Behring Center)

4. Developing Exhibitions

As a history museum, our top priority is history. While we share history through a variety of educational and public programs, our primary interpretive vehicles are exhibitions.

photo of exhibit model

View of an exhibition planning model, a tool used during conceptual development

We are committed to developing history exhibitions that are:

Collections-based. Our exhibitions should always use real artifacts.

photo of Jefferson's desk

Thomas Jefferson's portable writing desk, on which he drafted the Declaration of Independence

About people. Our exhibitions should tell the stories of real people, both ordinary and extraordinary.

Inclusive. Our exhibitions should include a wide range of stories, and every exhibition should include diverse cultures and communities.

Story-based. Our exhibitions should be built around stories that are particularly revealing, interesting, or for which we have strong collections. The exhibition medium works best when it provides focused attention, not when it tries to cover everything equally.

Relevant. Our exhibitions should encourage our visitors to think about their own responses to the topic, relate to their life and today's world, and share their ideas and stories with the Museum staff and with each other.

Varied in topic and approach. Our visitors have a variety of interests, and all should find something here that interests them. Exhibitions can serve a wide range of purposes; they can be celebratory, technical, commemorative, fun, challenging, and more.

Educational. Every exhibition should offer visitors the chance to learn and should appeal to audiences with diverse learning styles. There should be opportunities for social, object-based, cognitive, and reflective experiences.

Engaging and enjoyable. Our visitors are here to enjoy themselves, not to be lectured at. In order for our exhibitions to teach, they should make it fun to learn.

photo of basket making activity

Basket making in the Hands On History Room


Visual and interactive rather than text-based. Learning history in a museum differs from classroom and textbook learning, and our exhibitions should address that. Visitors do not want linear presentations and intensive, text-based learning. Instead, they want an array of experiences fitted to their schedules, their individual or group goals for the visit, their levels of knowledge, and their expectations of the Museum.

Expertise-based. NMAH has the largest and best staff of history museum professionals anywhere, and our exhibitions must be based on that expertise.

We are committed to developing exhibitions where visitors can grasp key ideas easily, have their curiosities sparked by thought-provoking and engaging interactive experiences, and connect with the past in an emotionally compelling way.

Within that context, we have developed a series of draft exhibition concepts. In developing these, we looked beyond the footprints of existing exhibitions, did not consider any exhibition to be protected, did not worry about costs, and looked not just at content but also at visitor experiences.

We have five exhibitions well under development:

  1. For Which It Stands -- a 5,000-square-foot exhibition looking at the history of the Star-Spangled Banner within the context of patriotism, citizenship, and national identity.
  2. America On the Move -- a 20,000-square-foot reworking of the Museum's transportation exhibitions, looking at the integral role of transportation in American history and in our culture from 1876 to the present.
  3. Global Connections -- a 15,000-square-foot exhibition on global information networks as powerful forces of social change in America and the world.

    photo of Apple computer

    The first Apple computer, built in Steve Jobs' garage

  4. American Legacies -- a 10-12,000-square-foot hall with an introductory gallery telling the story of the Museum's collections and suggesting the many ways that objects connect us to American history, and a changing exhibition gallery to showcase Museum collections and mount temporary exhibitions.
  5. The Welcome Center -- a 3,000-square-foot center designed to help visitors make the most of their Museum visit.

In addition, we are developing three exhibitions funded by Kenneth E. Behring and by the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation:

  1. We the People: American Achievers -- an 18-20,000-square-foot hall exploring American history through the lives of Americans, ordinary and extraordinary. Scheduled to open in November 2004.
  2. The Spirit of America -- a 10,000-square-foot interactive exhibition focusing on individual American achievers and their relentless urge to improve themselves, the country, and the world around them. Scheduled to open in November 2004.
  3. The Price of Freedom -- an 18-20,000-square-foot hall of military history, focusing on the ideas and issues Americans have fought for and the costs they paid to defend those ideals. Scheduled to open in November 2006.

Some current exhibitions may be retained in whole or in part, but three that we are committed to retaining in one form or another for the near future are:

  1. First Ladies, Political Role and Public Image
  2. The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden
  3. Within These Walls…

We have also identified several topics on which we have begun work. These are at a very preliminary stage -- no more than a few pages each -- and will undoubtedly change or even be replaced in response
to ideas raised by the Blue Ribbon Panel, the Museum's space plan study, and visitor studies.

  1. Inventing an American Nation -- on the first two centuries of American experience, focusing on the tension between national identity and the diversity of colonial and early national societies and cultures.
  2. The Making of Modern America -- on work, business, and economics, focusing on the social and technological changes that propelled America from an agricultural economy in the 18th century to an industrial and post-industrial nation in the 20th.
  3. America Plays -- three exhibitions on the history of sports and leisure, entertainment, and music and performing arts and their roles in the creation of a distinctive American identity, with a fourth component that looks at the links among them and the entrepreneurs and media connecting them to the public.
  4. You Are What You Eat: American Food and American Culture -- on the history of American food and eating habits, exploring American Identity through examining Americans' ever-changing relationships with the foods they produce, preserve, consume, reject, or lack.
  5. Latinos in America: Communities, Identities, and Expressions -- on what it means to be an American, using the lens of Latino history and culture to look at race, language, nativity, religion, class, and other differences at the heart of American Identity.

    photo of hatmakers

    Hat making in Puerto Rico

  6. A Sense of Place -- on America as a place of many places, encompassing home, community, region, and nation.
  7. Quest for Understanding: The Frontiers of Science -- on the important role that science has played, and continues to play, in American history and life, from the smashing of atoms to the decoding of human life.
  8. Uncommon Wisdom: The History of Health and Healing in America -- on how aspects of everyday life have changed over time as a result of shifts in knowledge of the human body, from the changing shapes and sizes of our bodies, to the doubling of life expectancy since 1940 and concomitant problems of aging, to the latest medical technologies for peering into the body and replacing body parts.
  9. Higher Education in America: A Widening Vision -- on the role of American colleges and universities in establishing equality of opportunity.

The Museum has discussed how these proposed exhibitions and
topics might be linked or connected. Possible connecting themes
include home and community, business and technology, and national
ideals and institutions. However, while useful in organizing space,
such themes are not critical to visitor experiences and should not be
imposed in a way that restricts flexibility in the future.

We should emphasize the value of presenting different stories and perspectives, using technology and other orientation vehicles to provide visitors with opportunities to identify and connect topics or ideas across exhibitions.

Table of Contents | Appendix F.5. Education and Programs-->