Roger G. Kennedy, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History who transformed the stodgy repository often called “America’s attic” into a vibrant display that enshrined pop-culture memorabilia even as it confronted some of the most shameful moments in the country’s past, died Sept. 30 at his home in Rockville. He was 85.
He had melanoma, his wife Frances Hefren Kennedy said.
Mr. Kennedy arrived in 1979 to 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.
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 to machines - to present a broader narrative of the United States.
Exhibits and acquisitions during his tenure included the chair from which the fictional 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.
In his defense, Mr. Kennedy said the 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.”
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