What kind of nation do we want to be?

In this time of political dissension, shifting international alliances and increasingly incivil public discourse, the American History Museum is opening The Nation We Build Together on the second floor of the west wing. Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton sat down with the museum’s director, John Gray, to talk about how the new exhibitions challenge Americans to consider the values that have always united us and to look beyond the issues that divide us.


artists rendering of gallery hall with statue

Horatio Greenough’s 1841 statue of George Washington will be the focal point of “The Nation We Build Together.” The 12-ton marble statue is rich with symbolism: Washington’s figure is modeled on the classic statuary of ancient Greece, seat of the world’s first democracy. Carvings on the sides depict the Greek god Apollo and an infant Hercules. Small flanking figures of an American Indian and Christopher Columbus represent the New and Old Worlds. The most important symbol, however, is the sword in Washington’s outstretched hand: this celebrates the fact that after he led the country to victory in the American Revolution, he selflessly relinquished his power to the people. (Artist’s rendering courtesy National Museum of American History)

The multi-year, complete transformation of the National Museum of American History comes one step closer to completion on June 28 with the opening of The Nation We Build Together, a major installation comprising three new exhibitions and program space as well as a refresh of Within These Walls. I talked with John Gray, the Elizabeth MacMillan Director, about how the new section explores America’s history in engaging and innovative ways.

Thematically, the new area focuses on American ideas and ideals–how does America’s concept of self-rule stand apart from democracies in other countries?

All three floors of the West Wing are organized around the fundamental ideals and ideas of America—like Freedom and Opportunity—which allows us to examine our roles in the ongoing creation of our country and American history. The Nation We Build Together challenges Americans to consider the values that have always united us and to look beyond the issues that divide us. We ask ‘What kind of nation do we want to be?’

folded red shawl with fringe

Woman’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony wore this red shawl when advocating for woman’s rights at suffrage conventions, speaking engagements or congressional sessions. Red shawls became one of her trademarks and a way to make her instantly recognizable to reporters and the public. It was said in Washington that there were two signs of spring: the return of Congress to the nation’s capital and the sight of Anthony’s red shawl as she also returned to lobby congressmen. (Photo courtesy National Museum of American History)

American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith, one of the new exhibitions, explores the larger idea of citizen participation and focuses on engagement through activities such as voting, lobbying, and petitioning. Looking across the globe, many countries have created their own forms of democracy. Some have been influenced by the American example, and all have evolved culturally and thematically within their unique environments. America’s distinctive form of representative democracy is notable for its constitutional checks and balances, which have served us well since our founding. The continuity and survival of our democracy distinguishes us and reminds us that we need deep citizen participation to thrive.

Telling the story of America’s founding and tracing its evolution is a huge undertaking—did certain artifacts help you narrow the focus?

The richness of the national treasures at the National Museum of American History inspire us—and require us—to focus on the most compelling American stories that position these artifacts in their true glory. In Many Voices, One Nation, we explore the many communities that have negotiated to create our nation and animate our national motto: E Pluribus Unum. One of our national treasures—a spectacular 19th-century inlaid wood table created by Peter Glass—combines traditional European designs with patriotic American motifs to share the powerful story of 19th -century German immigration. The Great Historical Clock of America from the 1890s—just conserved for American Democracy—is so much fun and very engaging. This 11-foot clock is a highly crafted, beautifully proportioned mechanical wonder. And Susan B. Anthony’s red shawl exemplifies the role and power of women’s suffrage. All of these artifacts are included because they represent the ongoing political, cultural and social evolution inherent to our democracy.

elaborate marquetry table

Inlaid with more than 30,000 pieces of wood, this tilt-top center table was created by German immigrant Peter Glass. As a farmer in Wisconsin, Glass applied his native training as a marquetry craftsman to make award-winning furniture in his spare time. The elaborate octagonal tabletop combines traditional European designs with patriotic American motifs, including portraits of U.S. military generals. In eight oval plaques encircling the piece, Glass also portrayed himself: “Peter/Glass/Maker/Town/Scott/Wisconsin/U.S. of/America.” Photo courtesy National Museum of American History

Visitor engagement is a key element of the installation, particularly in the Unity Square section, focusing on the Greensboro Lunch Counter. What factors were involved in developing the interactive components?

The Greensboro Lunch Counter provokes one of the most resonant emotional experiences in our visitors and is at the center of Unity Square, our new home for civic engagement programs. The Counter is positioned in front of a very large “magic mirror” that spontaneously reveals a potent new video featuring some of the heroes who participated in the civil rights movement. By juxtaposing the counter with the mirror, we provide more context and meaning for the visitor in order to illuminate America’s struggle to achieve greater equality and freedom. Other new interactive activities are engaging and fun but designed to create and inspire important discussions centering on moments in U.S. history and the contemporary issues that we hear about every day, such as voter participation—who has the right to vote? Who is a hero in America? Who has the most influence?

Elaborate clock

During the last quarter of the 19th century, monumental clocks—towering agglomerations of clockwork, decorative flourishes, animated panels, and mechanical music captured the imagination of the American public. Each clock was covered with a riot of colorful folk decorations combining Christian and patriotic items, some mechanically animated. The Great Historical Clock of America epitomizes these clocks. (Photo courtesy National Museum of American History)

The exhibitions will, for the most part, be on view for a long time. Was relevance over time a factor in determining key concepts and design features?

All of the new exhibitions have been built to provide the flexibility to change objects and ideas. For example, in Many Voices, One Nation, there are case studies on Dutch New Amsterdam, New Mexico, and Los Angeles—and these studies can be refreshed and updated over time to tell new stories of Americans. And our concluding display on transnational lives will continue to change, as we collect and present more contemporary stories as they play out on the national and global stage.

green soccer jersey

Fugees soccer team jersey, Clarkston, Georgia, about 2012. Short for “refugees” the team was made up of refugee children from across the world who united around soccer in their new U.S. home. (Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History)

Is there an artifact or work of art in the new area that speaks to you in a special or personal way?

There are several objects that come to mind. In Religion in Early America, we present many objects on faith for the very first time at the Smithsonian. George Whitfield’s portable pulpit was used to spread the word of Methodism and led to enormous growth in unimagined ways. It seems so fragile and modest for what he accomplished. Through this simple wooden pulpit, you see the extraordinary role of many different faiths in the development of our nation’s history. In Many Voices, One Nation, we display a striking player’s jersey that tells the story of the Fugees—a refugee grade-school soccer team—from Clarkston, Georgia. The team’s challenges were emblematic of a dramatic shift in demographics experienced by many American towns in the South. By forging relationships with community members, team members persevered and became champions—this is a more recent example of the ongoing negotiation about becoming American. A surprising object in American Democracy is the bust of King George III of Britain. The bust brings home the enormous differences—and often violent changes we made—as we moved from a monarchy to a democracy.

bronze bell on wooden stand

This bronze bell was made in Boston in 1802 by Revere and Son for a Maine Unitarian church. It later hung at the Stevens textile mill in Massachusetts. Gift of J.P. Stevens & Co. through the American textile History Collection. (Photo courtesy National Museum of American History)

You have been with the Smithsonian since 2012. As an “insider” now, are there things about the Institution that surprise you?

Compared to many, I am a relative newcomer, but I am an insider in that I feel so deeply connected to this Institution and our inspiring mission to advance “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” I know we have a responsibility to look at America from differing perspectives to give us new ways to understand the lives of individual Americans. I believe that we are all insiders and we share, as members of the Smithsonian family, a goal to make the nation and world a better place.


Posted: 5 June 2017
About the Author:

David J. Skorton is the 13th Secretary of the Smithsonian. A board-certified cardiologist whose specialty is congenital heart disease and cardiac imaging, Skorton is also an avid jazz musician and a passionate supporter of the arts and humanities.