II. A Challenging ContextNMAH Strengths,
Problems, Constraints, and Challenges
A. A National Treasure
The Smithsonian has often been described as a national treasure -- not
only as suggested by President Theodore Roosevelt a century ago, but also
by millions of visitors who have since come from across America and around
the world to explore its wonders. Within the Smithsonian, the National
Museum of American History (NMAH) has itself earned the same favorable
description. In both public perception and fact, it is a national treasure.
As such, it is unquestionably worthy of all that the phrase "national
treasure" implies: pride, preservation, protection, respect, support,
and creative attention.
The National Museum of American History is distinctive in several important
- NMAH is America's only national museum of American history.
- NMAH is America's largest history museum. It currently has about 200,000
square feet of exhibition floor space. Its collections are comprised
of more than three million objects, which occupy an additional 265,000
square feet of storage space.
- NMAH's collections amount to a unique and irreplaceable representation
of America's social, cultural, scientific and technological history.
They include some of the most important -- and some of the most popular
-- American reminders and artifacts. Among these, for example, are Thomas
Jefferson's desk, on which he drafted the Declaration of Independence;
and the Star-Spangled Banner, which flew over Fort McHenry during the
War of 1812, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became
America's national anthem. The collections range widely: from a Samuel
Morse telegraph and the Lewis and Clark compass to Duke Ellington's
sheet music; from John L. Sullivan's bare-knuckle championship prize
fighting belt to Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves; from a two-and-a-half
ton Mormon sunstone to fragile ceramics; from unrivaled collections
of scientific and medical instruments to the wooden puppet, Howdy Doody;
from early locomotives and streetcars to Richard Petty's stock car and
Lance Armstrong's bicycle; from the Woolworth's lunch counter at which
protesters sat in the Greensboro sit-in of 1960 to the chairs that Archie
and Edith Bunker filled in All in the Family. (For an overview
of the NMAH collections, please see Appendix B.) If NMAH were no more
than a repository for these collections, that fact alone would assure
its status as an extraordinary national treasure.
- NMAH is, of course, much more than a mere repository. Its collections
are studied, protected, enhanced, interpreted, and exhibited by a staff
of professionals who enjoy a high degree of respect among their peers.
Committed to both scholarship and education, they are themselves a valuable
- NMAH enjoys one of the most desirable locations in America. It is
at the heart of the national mall, in dramatic proximity to the Washington
Monument, with direct views of the Smithsonian castle and the Lincoln
- NMAH also enjoys a special place of trust in American culture. Its
national charter and association with America's identity have given
it a special claim. Generation after generation of teachers and parents
lead what amount to pilgrimages to Washington. Their purpose is typically
to acquaint each rising generation with a deeper sense of what it means
to be "American." And NMAH is often viewed as an essential
station on the intended journey of education and inspiration. Indeed,
it is said that a typical visitor will come to NMAH thrice in a lifetime:
once as a child with parents; again as a parent with children; and then
again as a grandparent with grandchildren. This may not be literally
correct. But it serves to underline the special place that NMAH may
hold in American culture.
- NMAH is the third most visited museum in the world. Prior to the terrorist
attacks of September 11th, it was visited at a steadily increasing rate
that exceeded six million visits per year. In the aftermath of September
11th, the number of visits has fallen sharply. But the upward trend
is expected to resume as confidence in air travel and travel to Washington
- Last, but not least, NMAH is the beneficiary of both public and private
financial support. Given NMAH's special mission and place as America's
only national museum of history, it seems unlikely that either the Congress
or major private donors would allow the Museum's support to fall below
a minimum necessary level. The current level of support is not sufficient
to achieve the potential that we and many others envision. But it does
at least provide a significant and relatively secure base on which to
For all these reasons, NMAH can reasonably be assumed to have a promising
future. Its collections, its location, its professional staff, its special
place of trust, its access to public and private support -- all these
strengths assure that Americans will hope and expect that the Museum should
meet a very high standard of excellence. These evident strengths also
increase the probability that NMAH -- along with the many public and private
constituencies that support it -- may muster the vision, resources, and
leadership necessary to meet the high hopes and expectations it has earned.
Table of Contents | II.B.
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