The new “American Enterprise” exhibition at the National Museum of American History.
“The nation’s attic” is getting a makeover. One fl oor at a time, the three-story west wing of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History—all 120,000 square feet of it—is being reimagined, with the first-floor galleries, devoted to the history of American enterprise and invention, debuting to much fanfare on July 1. Front-loaded with iconic objects and hands-on learning stations, the Innovation Wing is as inventive as its subject matter. (The democracythemed second floor and the pop culture–themed third floor will open in 2016 and 2017, respectively.)
“Our national museum has a unique opportunity to bring American history alive through our new learning galleries, which invite visitors to engage in the process of invention and discovery through hands-on activities, facilitated programs, docent spotlight tours, and even creative photo opportunities atop a replica high-wheel bicycle,” says the museum’s director, John L. Gray. “Invention and innovation are an indelible part of American history, with our own nation founded as a revolutionary new idea.”
The Innovation Wing is divided into sections. The largest is the Mars Hall of American Business, where an exhibition titled “American Enterprise” charts the country’s growth from an alliance of agrarian colonies into a global manufacturing powerhouse with a proud entrepreneurial spirit. The story is told in more than 600 objects, from textbook entries like Eli Whitney’s cotton gin to curios such as Madame C.J. Walker’s hair tonic and Alfred Bloomingdale’s personal credit card.
The other sections include Object Project, a learning space exploring the powerful impact of 250 everyday objects (such as bicycles and refrigerators), and Places of Invention, which time-trips to innovative hot spots like Hollywood in the 1930s, where Technicolor was born, and the boogiedown Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop. Everywhere the emphasis is on ingenuity as a particularly American quality.
Nowhere is that theme more apparent than in the east wing’s current show “Hear My Voice: Alexander Graham Bell and the Origins of Recorded Sound” (through January 31, 2016). This one-room display brings the west wing’s broader ambitions into focus, presenting the eminent engineer as a Bill Gates type with a beard and a Scottish brogue. Bell’s sound recordings are among the earliest ever made, but their fragile condition left many of them unplayable until 2009, when a breakthrough in high-resolution imaging allowed the indented surfaces to be converted into sound fi les without touching the actual objects, giving museumgoers a chance to hear history itself.
“Hear my voice,” commands Bell on one recording. His words may be faint, but like so many of the American entrepreneurs featured here, his determination is unmistakable. 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, 202-633-1000