National Museum of American

In the Smithsonian’s 170 year history, this is the first time that a museum exhibition takes a chronological approach to American history through business. (Sadie Dingfelder/Express)The National Museum of American History has devoted entire exhibits to voting machines, polio and Kansas City jazz, but it’s never chronicled American-style capitalism. On July 1, the museum will rectify that oversight in a major way, with a 45, 000-square-foot innovation wing including sections on business, money, advertising and consumer culture.

“Understanding the business development of the nation and its corresponding social effects is fundamental to the lives of American people, ” museum director John Gray says.

The wing’s renovation and exhibits cost a total of $63 million, $43 million of which came from donations from companies such as Monsanto, Motorola and Intel — all three of which are represented in the “American Enterprise” exhibit. That’s a coincidence, says David Allison, the museum’s associate director for curatorial affairs.

“All the content is determined by the Smithsonian, ” he says. “We don’t send it out for review.”

We recommend posing next to the real vault door at theThe goal of the wing, Allison adds, is not to sell a particular message, but to give people the opportunity to learn about the history of American capitalism. Indeed, a display about the World Trade Organization protests stands near a glass case showing the napkin upon which economist Arthur Laffer famously drew a graph to explain supply-side economics to Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in 1974.

“We are trying to tell all those stories not from a perspective that we have some message to preach, but by giving you an environment in which you can explore and find your own meaning, ” Allison says.

For instance, a wall at the end of the “American Enterprise” exhibit shows a collage of faces interspaced with words like “producer” and “inventor.”

“Our question, when you leave, is how will you fit into this story?” Allison says. “Are you a producer, consumer, innovator? What is your role going to be?”


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