Smithsonian announces new exhibit dedicated to business at American history museum

July 18, 2012

A multimedia exhibition detailing the history of American business and innovation from the 1770s to the present — including the cotton gin, robber barons, Silicon Valley — will open in 2015 at the National Museum of American History, the Smithsonian Institution announced Wednesday.

The 8,000-square-foot exhibit, tentatively titled “American Enterprise,” will trace the nation’s “business heritage, along with its benefits, failures and unanticipated consequences,” for the first time at the museum. It will include a New York Stock Exchange booth from 1929 and Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephones.

Artifacts from four chronological eras — merchant, corporate, consumer and global marketplaces — will be featured, along with those detailing the personal and familial back stories of business titans, as well as little-known innovators and entrepreneurs. Milestone moments in marketing will feature iconic print, television and radio advertisements — such as the “A Diamond is Forever” campaign from the DeBeers diamond company in the mid-20th century. And visitors will be able to test their own business acumen through an interactive section called “The Exchange,” which will allow them to initiate marketing strategies and win or loose money based on actual case studies.

Like the museum’s long-term transportation exhibit, “America on the Move,” “American Enterprise” will be displayed for decades. Peter Liebhold, chair of the Museum’s division of work and industry says because every American’s life is touched by stories of business, “by looking at these stories, we can learn a lot about ourselves.”

Leibhold hopes the exhibition conveys is the notion that there is no one “golden moment” in the country’s business history. “As a nation, we continually reinvent ourselves and makes changes. Thomas Jefferson, J.P. Morgan and Jack Welch all had dramatically different ideas of how the country should run, but the one thing they had in common was the idea of change and improvement. Of continually altering the system.”

Last year, for the first time, the museum launched an experimental Web site allowing the public in on process of putting an exhibition together: of research, object selection, and conversations between curators. An online version of the exhibition will accompany the opening.

In the period before “American Enterprise,” debuts, major renovations will be done to the museum’s west wing, where the exhibit will be housed. It will be located in the newly named “Mars Hall of American Business” in honor of the candy company, which is the exhibit’s principle sponsor, donating $5 million.

More from The Washington Post:

White House Visitor Center closing for 15-month rehab

M&M maker Mars gives Smithsonian $5M to fund business exhibit at American history museum

Smithsonian’s American Indian museum hosts 3rd Living Earth Festival this weekend

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