National Museum of American History Asks Who Is Free? Who Is Included? and Who Is Equal?
How did we become U.S.? “Many Voices, One Nation,” a new exhibition opening June 28 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American history invites audiences to explore that question in a 500-year chronological and thematic journey that animates the Latin emblem on the country’s Great Seal and the national ideal: E pluribus unum, Out of many, one.
“Many Voices, One Nation” is one of the signature exhibitions in a newly transformed wing of the museum’s second floor. Under the theme, The Nation We Build Together, all the exhibitions on this floor tell the story of America’s founding and future as a country built and building on the ideals and ideas of freedom and opportunity.
“In our democratic nation, ‘Many Voices, One Nation,’ shows how we have negotiated with each other for better lives, for a place in the country, for ways in which to live that benefit us and America,” said John Gray, the Elizabeth MacMillan Director of the National Museum of American History. “There is a process where people from all over the world have come to America and those people who were here or were brought here, have come together over time, sometimes in conflict, sometimes in concord, but coming together to create the America that we know and love.”
Through almost 200 museum artifacts and about 90 loan objects, this exhibition looks at how the many voices of the American people have contributed to and continue to shape the nation from its earliest beginnings to the present. The exhibition explores the never-ending process of becoming one nation through objects such as a painted elk hide from the Southwest, circa 1693, a Norwegian bowl brought by 19th-century immigrants, a gold miner’s trunk, symbols of union and liberty such as Uncle Sam and Columbia and a Boston Red Sox baseball helmet used by Carl Yastrzemski in the 1970s.
A visual mosaic of more than 350 faces graces the entrance wall, with images moving from the present to the past, leading visitors into the exhibition’s earliest chronological section (1492–1776) where three artifacts present the African, the Native American and the European colonial perspectives. A Tsimshian crest hat from the Pacific Northwest represents Native populations with their own histories on the continent. European competition for New World wealth, territory and influence is represented by a Spanish conquistador iron helmet. An African cowrie shell necklace symbolizes not only the currency used in the Atlantic slave trade, but also the hundreds of thousands of people forcibly brought to the Americas. The objects illustrate how the foundation of what is now the United States was laid out before 1776 as different people negotiated for a place within the continent.
The second chronological section (1776–1900) looks at how the U.S. expanded inland and in population. Patriotic symbols, such as the eagle, Columbia, Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty, emerged during this time period. A carved wooden eagle holding a ribbon decorated with the words E pluribus unum in its beak is displayed in a case surrounded by objects that may have been used by the many people who inhabited the nation in the 1800s. A marquetry table, made by German immigrant Peter Glass in Wisconsin, juxtaposes European woodworking methods with a depiction of U.S. patriotic symbols. It is included in a case that examines the expansion of the U.S. into the Midwest.
In the section on creating community (1900–1965), the exhibition looks at two city case histories: Chicago and Los Angeles to illustrate how people created and recreated neighborhoods. The urban and cultural landscape of Chicago at the turn of the 20th century is explored through stories and objects including the Hull House settlement that helped new immigrants adjust to urban life. European immigrants, Mexican Americans and African Americans were among those seeking opportunities in Chicago. Los Angeles also attracted people from across the country and the globe. By the 1920s, the city’s center or “La Plaza” had a population of Italian, French, Chinese, Japanese and Mexican American residents. A large neon “La Esperanza” bakery sign, on loan from the History Collections, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, reflects the Mexican heritage of the business owner. In Los Angeles, the Great Depression and World War II had significant impact on many Japanese Americans who were sent to incarceration camps under Executive Order 9066 and Mexican Americans who faced deportation.
The final chronological section (1965–2000) looks at new Americans who arrived after the Hart-Celler Act, which gave visa preference to skilled laborers and professionals as well as family reunification. The law opened African, Asian, Latin American and the Middle Eastern immigration, changing the makeup of the American population. Here, the exhibit looks at various stories, including “The Fugees,” a Georgia soccer team made up of refugee children who negotiated access to sports fields, the music and culture shared across the Southwest borderlands and a look at transnational lives through immigrants who retain family and business ties to their home countries.
The center of the exhibition provides a thematic look at where Americans negotiate their place in a community: in the workplace, on the playing field, in schoolrooms, in places of worship and in the military. Another thematic section focuses on celebrations, from ethnic parades and music festivals to religious and cultural holidays as well as Thanksgiving and July 4. A carnival costume from Puerto Rico and a performance costume from Washington, D.C.’s a capella group “Sweet Honey in the Rock” are featured in a changing display case.
Throughout the exhibition, there are eight multimedia videos and animation as well as five interactive activities that include flip books and touch-screens to help audiences further explore the questions posed in the exhibition of “Who is free?” “Who is included? and “Who is equal?”
At the exit there is an interactive with a map of the U.S. and territories made out of heat-responsive tiles that when touched record for a few seconds a visitors’ presence as a handprint. “Out of many…voices…stories…lives, We become U.S.” reads the final exhibit label.
The “Many Voices, One Nation” exhibition is made possible by leadership support from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation and Sue Van, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the Zegar Family Foundation, Marjie and Steve Alloy, T.Z. and Irmgard Chu, History Channel/A+E Networks, the Hsieh Family Foundation, Bill and Mary Kim, Rafat and Shaista Mahmood & Family, George and Judy Marcus, the Segal Family Foundation, Enrique and Alejandra Segura, Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang and two anonymous donors.
The website will launch June 28 at http://americanhistory.si.edu/many-voices.
Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press is the publisher of the companion book, Many Voices, One Nation, which explores U.S. history through a powerful collection of artifacts and stories about America’s many peoples. Sixteen essays, composed by Smithsonian curators and affiliated scholars, offer distinctive insight into the peopling of the United States from the Europeans’ North American arrival in 1492 to the near present. Each chapter addresses a different historical era and considers what quintessentially American ideals like freedom, equality, and belonging have meant to Americans of all backgrounds.
The National Museum of American History is located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th Streets and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free.
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[Category: Society and Culture]