The National Museum of American History (NMAH) opened its doors to the public in 1964 as the Museum of History and Technology to house the venerable collection that had been on view in the Arts and Industries Building. The more appropriate name was chosen in 1980, and today the museum is one of the world's most exciting and visited exhibit halls — a place to go to understand what it means to be an American. It is home to icons that embody our nation's history — unique treasures such as the original Star-Spangled Banner, the lap desk upon which Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, and the compass that Lewis and Clark used to guide them in their explorations. Its collections also include objects of everyday life, such as a ceramic teapot used by African slaves and a work bell from the Pecos Pueblo in New Mexico. The museum has more than three million artifacts that illustrate American culture — its innovative spirit, its diversity and its singularity.
NMAH's mission is grounded in its special role as public historian. Through rigorous scholarly research of historical objects, the museum helps visitors evaluate the past to better understand the challenges of the future. These objects hold a unique power to illuminate ideas, memories and details of the lives of individuals and communities. Collectively they say much about the ordinary people and the leaders who created this extraordinary nation. Through its exhibitions, the museum provides a context for understanding their stories.
As a result of an intensive strategic planning process, the museum is embarking on its Blueprint for the Future — a series of changes aimed at improving the educational experience for all of its audiences. New exhibitions, outreach, hands-on learning, collections preservation and accessibility, and focused research will continue to provide quality experiences for visitors, take the museum to wider audiences through the use of new technology, and improve its methods of preserving and building the collections that document our country's history.
Future plans include the creation of a Welcome Center and an exhibition, "American Legacies," that will help visitors understand and interpret history through the museum's collections. Modern technology provides greater opportunities for making NMAH accessible to people around the globe. Whether you visit the museum in Washington, D.C. or dial in from a computer in a classroom in rural Alaska, you will be able to make connections between objects, moments in history, and the individuals that helped shape our nation. At the center of the museum's enhancement effort is the landmark Star-Spangled Banner Preservation project. The 185-year-old flag, which inspired the writing of our national anthem, begins a three-year preservation process. Visitors will be allowed to view firsthand the ongoing conservation work in a state-of-the-art laboratory.
Projects such as this are vital to the conservation of our precious national heritage and are largely made possible by generous donors. Polo Ralph Lauren led the way by recently pledging $10 million to the flag preservation project. The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation — along with other individuals, foundations and associations — also have contributed significantly to this project. To help us share the flag's story with a wider audience, the History Channel is producing films, classroom learning materials and other educational programs about the banner's history and conservation. Other donations have enhanced the ability of the museum to meet its expanding mission. The Board of the National Museum of American History continually provides financial and other resources, as well as advice and support, for the museum's important objectives. In 1995, the generous gift of the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Foundation established the Lemelson Center, which provides a wide range of research and educational activities for schoolchildren and families.
With the support of donors such as these, the National Museum of American History embarks on its journey to raise $100 million to preserve and share today's treasures for tomorrow. The new millennium is a time for exciting discoveries and renewed appreciation for our history and our heritage. Ensuring access to these treasures can only be achieved by the continued support of the private sector.
By I. Michael Heyman, Secretary