Director of the National Museum of American History Reflects on the Challenges of Our Historic Times

Anthea M. Hartig, the Director of the National Museum of American History, reflects on the challenges of living through a historic time.

"We found ourselves in just that moment of knowing that history was unfolding before our very eyes on January 6,” writes the museum’s director Anthea M. Hartig (above). (NMAH)

History, it seems, has become vogue and relevant. It’s watching, it has its eyes on you, and it might very well judge you.

Well, not quite. Historians are watching, and have eyes on you, but we do our very best not to judge. Rather we collect, preserve, and present contemporary times through the multiple lenses of scholarship and interpretation—and, increasingly, safety—so that you can learn and assess with us.

The peoples’ history museum, the National Museum of American History, stewards and shares the national collection and is honored to hold the public’s trust. Our team forms the beating heart of the museum: the dedicated professionals who care for its audiences, buildings, collections, messages, and resources while holding ourselves to the highest standards—all in service to the people of the United States.

Our mission, empowering people to create a just and compassionate future by exploring, preserving, and sharing the complexity of our past, sets an ambitious, inclusive, and powerful table around which we invite our audiences and peers to gather. Our vision, to become the most accessible, inclusive, relevant, and sustainable public history institution in the nation, sets a high, expansive, and courageous bar, designed to daily inspire and challenge us. The museum's holdings form a fascinating, growing mosaic of American life and comprise the greatest single collection of United States history in the world. Our exhibitions and educational experiences explore fundamental yet fraught and complicated ideals and ideas—such as democracy, opportunity, and freedom—and major themes in U.S. history and culture, from European contact in the Americas to the present day.

But it is our staff, past and present, from Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III to colleagues like Dr. Frank Blazich, curator of Military History and a veteran, whose article opens our new platform here on Smithsonian Voices, who make history possible. While a generation or so apart, Lonnie and Frank exemplify the work of our political and military historians who often find themselves collecting in the field, in the very grist of history, to ensure that we do not shirk our duties.

We found ourselves in just that moment of knowing that history was unfolding before our very eyes on January 6. For the first time since the War of 1812, the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., was seriously breached, this time by domestic rioters (some would say insurrectionists or seditionists). An angry, violent mob broke up the constitutionally mandated joint session of Congress meeting to ratify the 2020 election results. Fraudulent claims and conspiracy theories challenging the legitimacy of the election results fueled these scenes.

Thus, when Frank volunteered to go to the National Mall as that long day ended, I agreed with deep and lasting gratitude. Collecting in the time of COVID heightens the stakes and our staff’s safety is my highest priority. His powerful reflections from that next morning capture so much of what we continue to reckon with—a process into which we invite you.

Please find the director’s full statement from January 8 here.

Dr. Anthea M. Hartig is the Elizabeth MacMillan Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History