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


Appendix G: NMAH's Planned and Funded New Exhibits (March 2002)

The following documents prepared by NMAH are brief descriptions of the National Museum of American History, Behring Center's planned and funded new exhibitions: America on the Move; America's Museum, America's Stories (Introductory Exhibit); For Which it Stands; and The Price of Freedom.

America on the Move

The Museum's first major transportation exhibition in over two decades, America on the Move will take visitors on a journey through the history of transportation in America since 1876. As they travel through America on the Move, visitors will encounter vehicles in historical vignettes, set in particular places and times, each vignette telling a story of national significance. Using multimedia technology, immersive environments, and other theatrical techniques, America on the Move will bring these trains, trucks, and automobiles back to life -- or, more accurately, back to history. For the first time, visitors will be able to see these artifacts as they once were: moving people and products from place to place, a vital part of the nation's transportation system, a vital part of our business, social, and cultural history. The history of transportation, so central to the American experience, is a complex and intriguing story, involving changing travel patterns and demographics, changing patterns of consumption based on increasingly complex distribution systems for food and goods, and changing cities, agricultural regions, and landscapes. America on the Move will tell of immigration and migration, cars and culture, the importance of cars, trucks, and trains in the nation's economy -- as well as the pleasures of hitting the road for a summer vacation.

A companion exhibit, On the Water: Stories from Maritime America, will explore the maritime dimensions of American life from 1600 to the present, focusing on those groups of people whose lives were defined by their relationship with America's oceans, rivers, lakes, and shores. The exhibition will draw visitors into these compelling stories of human interaction with the water by creating settings and spaces that reflect those maritime experiences.

In 1997, the Department of Transportation provided $3 million as seed money for America on the Move. That allowed NMAH to hire staff, contract with a design firm, bring in expert academic advisors, and complete, in 1999, the exhibit's conceptual design. That design, reviewed by a wide range of outside advisors, was used for a successful fund-raising campaign: NMAH has raised approximately $19 million of the $22 million this project requires. In December 2001, the Museum's Director's Council gave approval to proceed to final design and assigned an opening date of November 2003.

America's Museum, America's Stories

This new 20,000-square-foot introductory exhibition complex -- a dramatic new theater experience, a chronological, biographical, and thematic introduction to American history, an index to the rest of the Museum's exhibitions, and a changing exhibition space -- will provide the Museum's six million annual visitors with an overview of American history. Located at the west end of the Museum with a spectacular view of the mall and the Washington Monument, it will showcase some of the Museum's most precious treasures to help visitors place the important issues, events, and people in American history into historical context. Together with the newly conserved Star-Spangled Banner, displayed in a refurbished two-story space, and a grand new introduction and atrium space on the second floor, the new complex will transform the visitors' experience of the Museum. The centerpiece of the Museum's transformation, the anchor of the Museum experience, America's Museum, America's Stories will give visitors the opportunity to discover, celebrate, and reflect on the history they share as Americans.

America's Museum, America's Stories will have several parts. Most visitors will want to visit the whole show, but the design will allow for visitors to choose the areas they want:

  • Behring Theater: A knock-your-socks-off experience -- perhaps a 360 degree theater, perhaps a high-resolution movie, perhaps an "object theater" mixing artifacts, images and sound -- the Behring Theater will provide an introduction to America and Americans, to American history, and to the National Museum of American History.
  • American Showcase: Visitors will see some of the Museum's most evocative artifacts presented to answer a key question throughout our history: What has it meant to be an American?
  • Timeline of History and Biography: The centerpiece of the exhibition, a 10,000-square-foot chronological survey of American history built from artifacts, biographies, period settings, vintage motion pictures, photographs, and more. The timeline will feature the stories of Americans famous and unknown, those who accomplished great things and those whose achievements are less well known. It will include, in addition to the chronological backbone and biographical stories, an overview of some of the ideals that have shaped the nation -- democracy, freedom, and opportunity -- and an index to other exhibits at the Museum, at the Smithsonian Institution, and around Washington.
  • Behring Gallery: A 5,000-square-foot gallery to showcase the best exhibitions from museums around the country and changing exhibitions prepared by the Museum staff.

Since this exhibition will not open until late 2006, NMAH has just begun work on it -- the above establishes the components of the exhibit but the actual content is still to be developed. The project team has not yet been assembled, but the Museum has begun discussion within the Office of Curatorial Affairs regarding a potential project director, possible curators, and an educator.

For Which It Stands: The Star-Spangled Banner

Since 1998 the Museum has been undertaking the preservation of one of the nation's most precious artifacts: the original Star-Spangled Banner. Assuming success in raising the necessary funds, the Star-Spangled Banner will be reinstalled in 2005 as the centerpiece for a renewed NMAH and the focus of an important new exhibition on the history and meaning of the American flag in American life.

The exhibition, For Which It Stands, will use an array of artifacts, images, and personal narratives to explore the complex ways in which Americans have used the flag to express their ideas about patriotism, citizenship, and national identity. The exhibition title, taken from the Pledge of Allegiance, will provide a familiar starting point from which to explore the idea that the American flag has stood for different things, at different times, to different people. The flag holds many meanings -- it is more than a single statement of patriotic principles. It is a dynamic symbol, one that has assumed new meanings at critical periods in American history. As a shared symbol with many layers of meaning, the flag has been a focal point for declarations, dialogues, and debates about what it means to be American. And as a contested symbol, it has sharpened the discourse over our national ideals.

Through an exploration of the history and meaning of the flag from the Revolution to the present day, For Which It Stands will show how people have used this national symbol to define, promote, challenge, and lay claim to American identity and American ideals. It will examine rituals and traditions through which the meaning of the flag has been reinforced and passed down from one generation to the next. It will illustrate how, from folk art to high fashion, the flag has been personalized and popularized. And, most importantly, it will explore how through waving the flag, whether in celebration or in protest, we express our ideas and beliefs about what it means to be an American.

The Star-Spangled Banner will be installed in a new two-story space on the second floor, opposite the main door of the museum. For Which It Stands will be next to it, to its east, so that the large flag stands both on its own, as an icon, and also as part of the exhibition. The timetable of For Which It Stands depends on fund raising and on the schedule for the renovation of the central core of the building. The collections and historical research for the exhibition is largely complete. A contract for the conceptual design has been signed with the design firm of Chermayef and Geismar, and serious design work should begin early in 2002. A proposal for funding -- an additional $12 million is needed for the exhibition and the flag display -- has been submitted to two major foundations.

The Price of Freedom

In late 2004 the Museum will open a new exhibit in its military history halls, tentatively entitled The Price of Freedom. This exhibition, one of two required in the gift agreement with Kenneth Behring, will allow the Museum to tell the important story of the role of the military in American history. It will replace a hodgepodge of exhibits -- including Fast Attacks and Boomers: Submarines in the Cold War, Personal Legacy: The Healing of a Nation, and World War II GI: The American Soldier's Experience -- with a coherent presentation. A More Perfect Union will remain, updated and with a new entrance and exit.

The Price of Freedom will explore the issues that Americans have deemed worth fighting for and the costs Americans paid to defend those ideals. Most Americans use the wars the country has fought as a way to understand the nation's history, and appropriately so, for our country has only gone to war when it thought it had something that seemed worth fighting for. Our wars define our history and reflect and shape our identity as Americans. The Price of Freedom will build on that popular understanding of history, putting our wars into context while at the same time letting visitors experience the horror of battle and the bravery of America's war fighters. It will tell the story of America's soldier and sailor heroes -- Congressional Medal of Honor winners as well as those who served their country behind the front lines. But it will not only serve to honor the American men and women who fought and died for our country; it will also explain why they fought. The story of America's wars reflects the story of America -- our ideals, our concerns, our industrial might, our political travails.

The Museum began substantial work on this 20,000 square foot exhibition in January 2002 by hiring a project director and convening a small meeting of academic military historians to advise us on the essential issues for this exhibit to address. Attendees included Brigadier General John Brown, D'Ann Campbell, Andrew Cayton, Dik Daso, Allan R. Millett, Michael Sherry, Russell F. Weigley and Ronald Spector, as well as Museum staff. In spring a design firm will be hired and a larger charrette or workshop will be held that will include not only academic advisors but also experts from museums and stakeholders from the military and veterans organizations. A conceptual design for the exhibition is expected by early fall 2002, with final design completed in 2003.

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