About the Exhibition
Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops, 1820-Present was an exhibition at the National Museum of American History on display from April 22 - December 10, 1998.
Some 100 objects and graphics examined the history of sweatshops in the United States and the complex factors that contribute to their existence. Artifacts on display included photographs of sweatshops from 1900 to the present; early and modern sewing machines; photographs of the tragic 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire in New York City; and a re-created sweatshop from the El Monte sweatshop complex raided in August 1995. The exhibition concludes with information on how affordable garments are being made in the non-sweatshop conditions in the United States.
The original exhibition had a contemporaneous website, one of the earliest produced by the museum. This website was retired in 2018 and replaced by this current web exhibit to preserve the exhibition content.
Why Do Museums Mount This Kind of Exhibition?
Workers in a sweatshop, New York City, 1910Courtesy Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University
History museums are educational institutions that strive to make the American past accessible, useful, and meaningful to the millions who view their exhibitions, read their catalogs, and participate in public programs.
Museum exhibitions often celebrate and commemorate the past and, in doing so, create a collective memory that helps provide Americans with a common understanding of that past. Equally important is a museum's obligation to explore all aspects of the American experience.
History museums interpret difficult, unpleasant, or controversial episodes, not out of any desire to embarrass, be unpatriotic, or cause pain, but out of a responsibility to convey a fuller, more inclusive history. By examining incidents ripe with complexities and ambiguities, museums hope to stimulate greater understanding of the historical forces and choices that shaped America.
Museums make the greatest contribution to public education when they provide audiences with tools to both celebrate and critically analyze American history. Ultimately, museums mount these kinds of exhibitions because they have confidence in the American public's tolerance for candor and its appreciation for important historical stories.
Spencer Crew, Director
Lonnie Bunch, Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs
National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution