Mr. Kennedy, who served as director of the National Park Service after leaving the history museum in 1992, took an unusual path to the top of a major American museum. A prolific author but never an academic, he had held many jobs — Washington correspondent for NBC in the 1950s, banker, vice president of the University of Minnesota and executive with the Ford Foundation in New York.
In 1979, he arrived at the Museum of History and Technology, as the American history collection was then known, without any experience in museum administration but with a visceral passion for the past. “I’ll teach history to anybody I can get my mitts on,” he once told Newsweek.
When Mr. Kennedy began working for the Smithsonian, S. Dillon Ripley, the institution’s top executive, was concerned with strengthening its mass appeal. Like Ripley, who put the carousel on the Mall, Mr. Kennedy cared most about drawing people into the museum and persuading them to stay a while.
Asked about his legacy at the museum, Mr. Kennedy told The Washington Post in 1992, “I would defer to any 15-year-old passing through this place.”
Mr. Kennedy led what current interim director Marc Pachter called the museum’s “golden age.” The building’s name changed to its current one, a move that reflected Mr. Kennedy’s aspiration to house more than a staid collection of collections. He reorganized the trove of artifacts — ranging from stamps to inaugural gowns and machines — to present a broader narrative of the United States.
Exhibits and acquisitions during his tenure included the chair from which Archie Bunker shot off his bigoted mouth on the television show “All in the Family,” forcing viewers to confront an ugly side of American culture in the 1970s; the set of the “M*A*S*H” television show that helped families talk not only about the war in Korea but also the one in Vietnam; and one of the red cardigans Fred Rogers donned every time he asked millions of American children if they would be his neighbors.
Some critics did not warm to the emphasis on pop-culture items, questioning whether the ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” merited a place in the marble halls of a museum that also grappled with slavery and racism.
Mr. Kennedy defended the popular items, saying his hope was to entice people with the fun stuff. “Once we get ’em in the door,” he told Newsweek in 1989, “there are innumerable other things they’ll catch out of the corner of their eyes.”
In style, Pachter said, Mr. Kennedy used the “principles of drama” to make the museum more engrossing. He hired a theatrical designer from the Metropolitan Opera to dream up a display for the flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Once an hour, lights illuminated the flag while the national anthem’s melody rang out over speakers.