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)

5. Education and Public Programs

Nowhere is the Museum's commitment to making history accessible clearer than in its education and public programs.

visitors count cowrie shells

Counting cowrie shells at a Holiday Celebration event

From school tours to performances, from curriculum materials to websites, our focus is on making the ideas, people, and objects of the past come to life for our diverse audiences. We want to engage everyone in history: young, old, individuals, families, and groups, at the Museum or as part of our outreach across the nation, whether on vacation or in school groups.

NMAH is committed to developing education and public programs that:

  • firmly establish the Museum as a place for learning, enjoyment, and social interaction for all ages and interests.
  • reach out to new and underserved audiences.
  • extend the Museum's message beyond the walls of the building.
  • encourage people to make connections with the past and to see themselves as makers of history.
  • promote visual literacy and critical thinking skills as they apply to historical understanding.
  • promote lifelong learning for young people and adults and create supporters for the study and preservation of American history.

Our programs and materials offer opportunities to explore, observe, study, think critically, try out, contemplate, discuss with friends, classmates, or experts -- and to simply enjoy the Museum. In developing new offerings, we build on leading-edge ideas in history and museum learning, what we know about our visitors and visitation patterns, changing national demographics, and our long and successful track record in producing popular and engaging programs.

To achieve these goals, we develop and present a varied mix of programs and materials that:

Are content rich. Our commitment to history is as strong in our programs and materials as in our exhibitions. From demonstrations to symposia, every activity is firmly rooted in historical scholarship.

photo of family in front of house

The Moses family, farming on the Nebraska Plains, 1880s


Explore America's diverse and complex past. Our programs not only celebrate our multicultural past but also engage more culturally diverse audiences.

Engage visitors in both hands-on and minds-on activities. We interpret the Museum's collections and enhance our exhibitions through demonstrations, discussions, inquiry tours, role-playing, storytelling, and object analysis.

Provide multisensory experiences. Music, drama, dance, oratory, storytelling, and crafts can enliven the Museum and communicate ideas about the past in fundamentally different ways than exhibitions.

photo of theater poster

Poster for the GALA Hispanic Theatre production of The Last Angry Brown Hat, part of the Museum's Encuentros programming

Encourage public debate and discussion. We sponsor a variety of forums for public debate and discussion on issues of current political or social interest.

Maximize collaborations with other cultural and educational organizations. We believe in the importance of collaborating with museums, historical societies, libraries, archives, and other organizations that share our commitment to history. Nowhere is this commitment stronger than with schools -- we provide museum resources to supplement the curriculum and promote history teaching through primary resources and the stories of real people.

Reach audiences not only in the Museum but across the region and nationwide. While many of our programs are presented at the Museum, we also sponsor offerings at venues in the larger Washington, D.C., region.

To further this work, the Museum is committed to:

Developing a Center for Education. This 20,000-square-foot facility will include:

  • Storytelling Theater -- An intimate venue for family, school, and adult programming featuring storytelling, living-history interpreters, and other interactive presentations. It will provide a permanent home for OurStory, the Museum's popular children's literature and history program series.

    program logo

    Logo for the OurStory program

  • Hands On Learning -- A place where walk-in visitors and scheduled groups may sample creative hands-on and minds-on activities that require a degree of focus and quiet that cannot be achieved elsewhere in the Museum. These activities will be updated regularly to highlight the Museum's newest exhibitions and collections.
  • Exhibition gallery -- An innovative, theme-based exhibition gallery highlighting historical stories of special interest to teens and families.
  • Workshop and classroom spaces -- State-of-the-art classroom and workshop spaces offering specialized programming for teachers, students, adults, and families and training for volunteers, accommodating a range of activities from low-tech arts and crafts and informal presentations on artifacts to high-tech teacher training sessions and electronic outreach to students that cannot be experienced in exhibitions.
  • Education resource area -- In this setting, educators may access supplementary teaching units, self-guides, materials for classroom use, and other information on museum-based teaching.
photo of visitors with masked figure

Chinese American Day activities at the Museum, 2000


Enhancing public program venues. To provide the level of programming the public expects, NMAH needs both well-thought-out spaces within exhibitions and a central venue with larger capacity, better program amenities, improved accessibility, and state-of-the-art technical equipment, including broadcast and distance-learning capabilities.

Broadening our audiences. NMAH will re-create or reshape programs and materials for dissemination nationwide as tours, radio and television programs, recordings, and websites. Partners will include not only other Smithsonian museums and offices (including SITES and the Smithsonian Associates), but also our nationwide networks of SI Affiliates.

Education and public programs enhance and enliven our collections and exhibitions and are central to our plans for transforming the Museum, reinforcing our commitment to making history accessible to its multigenerational and increasingly diverse audiences.

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