The American History Museum’s New Approach to Telling “American Stories”

A new exhibition at the American History Museum uses more than 100 objects to tell American stories from 1620 to 2008

Chinese restaurant
This bowl, from a Chinese restaurant opened during the Chinese immigration surge to Hawaii in the 1920s, tells one of the "American Stories" in the American History Museum's new exhibition. Image courtesy of the American History Museum

Faced with the need to close and renovate the west wing of the American History Museum, interim director Marc Pachter had a problem: what would happen to all the beloved and famous objects housed there, like Kermit the Frog, or Archie Bunker’s chair?

“If we don’t keep these things on view, we will be torn limb from limb,” he joked of the mobs of would-be disappointed tourists this summer.

And so, “American Stories” was born. While it may have started as a holding place for displaced artifacts, the exhibition, which opened April 12 at the American History Museum, now seems designed for visitors who want to take a crash course in the history of the United States.

The room encompasses American history, science and pop culture from 1620 to 2008. Ben Franklin’s suit is just a few yards away from a 2004 iPod. Before, these two objects might have been separated into a textiles gallery and a technology exhibition. But now, visitors are encouraged to see what they have in common, as important symbols of the larger American story.

“We wanted to create an exhibit that would give people an introductory experience to American history,” explains curator Bonnie Campbell-Lilienfeld. “We have a transportation exhibit, we have a military history exhibit. There are lots of different themes. But this was supposed to set a context for the rest of the museum.”

Campbell-Lilienfeld and the other curators compiled more than a hundred objects: some that have been on view before, like the ruby slippers that Judy Garland wore in the Wizard of Oz, with recent acquisitions, such as the 19th-century crawling baby doll that came into the collections just last year. The exhibition relies on the power of objects like these to tell larger American stories.

Of course, figuring out which stories to tell in such a broad exhibition wasn’t easy. The diversity of American experience was, as project director Bill Yeingst says, both “our current challenge and opportunity.” This exhibition allowed them “to demonstrate the national museum truly recognizes the difference that difference has made in our history,” he says.

In that spirit, the more traditionally “American” history, represented by artifacts like a fragment of Plymouth Rock and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, are joined by less commonly told narratives, through items like a Passover seder plate from the 1700s, a 1966 pamphlet on “The Homosexual Citizen,” and a quinceañera dress from 2006. The exhibition has been designed to be flexible, so that it can expand with new objects and stories.

Visitors can also suggest their own ideas for objects to include, both at the museum and online. As interim director Pachter says, “We want all our visitors to feel like they belong in the American story.”

“American Stories” is on view at the American History Museum indefinitely.

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