The Smithsonian National Museum of American History's brand new wing is transforming how museum-goers experience US history.
"The Nation We Build Together" begs visitors to speculate what kind of country they want to be a part of, a question that Americans confront on a daily basis given the current political climate.
It's themed around the evolution of American democracy, diversity, religion. The new 30,000-square-foot area consists of four specific exhibits -- three of which are brand new and the other recently renovated.
When entering the wing, visitors will encounter the first exhibit, “American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith." This section of the museum acts as a three-dimensional textbook that guides museum-goers through the country’s revolt against Great Britain, the establishment of democratic principles in 1776, and the maturation of these tenets via exercises of free speech in the 1960s.
The exhibit features Thomas Jefferson's desk used to draft the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln’s inkstand utilized for the Emancipation Proclamation, and other centuries-old artifacts.
“Many Voices, One Nation” is the second new exhibit within the west wing and encourages visitors to question how the US became the country that it is today.
“We really go through chronologically over 500 years of history to show that the United States has been diverse since the very beginning and even before that,” said co-curator of the new exhibition, Margaret Salazar-Porzio, Ph.D. “‘Many Voices, One Nation’ is a people’s history of the United States.”
On display are unique pieces such as a 2013 soccer jersey worn on a Georgia team made up of refugees. A Statue of Liberty model stands tall, once used in the 2000 Coalition of Immokalee Workers protest for higher wages. Lady Liberty holds a bundle of tomatoes in her left arm, representing agricultural workers' efforts.
The last new exhibit, “Religion in Early America,” sits in the center of the museum’s new space. Here, visitors learn how religion has affected the US throughout time, a theme encapsulated by showings of Arabic manuscripts, Jewish Torahs, and Christian bibles. Unlike the other exhibits within the collection, “Religion in Early America” is temporary and will close on June 3rd, 2018.
“Within These Walls,” completes the museum’s west wing. Although not new, this space has been renovated and now features innovative research since its exposition in 2001. Filled by an entire home from Ipswich, Ma., this section explains what life was like for those who lived in the home. Here, Americans witnessed the Revolution, sought to abolish slavery, and watched World War II became a reality.
At the end of the renovated space, museum-goers can reflect on what they have learned with a view of the National Monument. “Unity Square" allows vistors to engage with one another via interactive activities about US history.
“This space is about and for participation,” said exhibit developer and educator Megan Smith. “We want you to both be inspired by the past and roll your sleeves up and talk to each other.”
The area also acts as the new home for the Greensboro Lunch Counter, the site of the famous 1960 sit-in. A mirror stands on the server’s side where those seated can see the African American History and Culture Museum reflecting back at them.
“It brought tears to my eyes to see people here in the space for the first time,” Salazar-Porzio said about the wing’s grand opening on Wednesday. “I was watching people grab their friends and bring them over to things saying ‘You need to see this!’”
After more than 5 years of renovations, visitors can finally witness the American History Museum’s efforts to educate the public about the US in an innovative way. The museum is celebrating the launch of the new wing with a series of interactive activities throughout the week. For the schedule of events, read here.