Using campaign buttons, religious texts and protest signs, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History is debuting its newly renovated second-floor west wing to tell the story of American democracy. "The Nation We Build Together" opens Wednesday, featuring both national treasures and everyday objects.
Using national treasures and everyday objects, the museum tells the story of American democracy with The Nation We Build Together, the newly renovated west wing of the building’s second floor, opening Wednesday.
It’s a 30,00-square-foot civics lesson, where you can catch a glimpse at George H.W. Bush's campaign buttons, build a March Madness-style bracket of influential Americans, and examine protest signs from the modern era. It’s the second floor to open in the museum’s multiyear renovation to all three floors of the museum’s west wing, with portions of the third floor’s west side opening in 2018.
“We’re hoping to inspire people to see their place in this democracy and also to have a little bit more patience with it,” said Harry Rubenstein, project director for American Democracy, one of the four exhibitions in The Nation We Build Together.
A statue of George Washington greets you at the front of the wing, which has been closed for renovation since 2012. The section now features two new long-term exhibitions, one temporary exhibit and one reshaped exhibit. It also includes an open space for programming called Unity Square. The first of the wing's two-long term exhibitions is American Democracy. It chronicles the history of voting rights in America, from when only white male property owners could vote to today’s practically universal suffrage.
Highlights include a wagon from the women’s suffrage movement, which suffragists used at speaking engagements, and the writing box Thomas Jefferson used to draft the Declaration of Independence.
"What does American democracy look like?" Rubenstein asked. "From national treasures to an Eisenhower 'I Like Ike' pot holder, these are the things that make American democracy work." An array of buttons, sunglasses and even a football promoting presidential candidates is strewn across one of the cases, providing a window into the race to become commander-in-chief.
The second long term exhibit, "Many Voices, One Nation," tells the story of how the United States came to be a melting pot. The periphery depicts a chronological history of immigration in America, while the inner cases center on thematic areas such as baseball, an experience that ties Americans together across cultures. These shoes belonged to three-time All-Star Negro Leagues player Jimmie Crutchfield.
"We looked for how to talk about how diversity in sports and how sports allows people to come together, to express their identities and also find their communities," said Margaret Salazar-Porzio, one of the curators for Many Voices, One Nation. The exhibition culminates with a heat sensitive map of the United States, where you can leave a hand print in the wall.
Religion in Early America is the wing’s third and temporary exhibit, on display until June 2018. It features a Torah burned by British troops, Islamic texts written by an enslaved African, and a copy of Thomas Jefferson’s cut-and-paste bible, where Jefferson organized gospel into chronological order. It's followed by Within These Walls, a redesigned exhibit with some new material that first went on display in 2001.
The wing comes together in Unity Square, an open space for programming with an iconic view of the Washington Monument and the Museum of African American History and Culture. Curators intended for it to be a conversational area, where visitors can use a card game to guide discussion about citizenship.
The Nation We Build Together opens Wednesday.
Find more information here on opening day activities.