In the Dakota territories in the 1840s, female traders of the Metis people were fed up with low prices offered by the British Hudson’s Bay Company, which had a stranglehold on the fur trade.
So the women of this mixed Native American-European culture (the men trapped the animals, and the women brought the furs to market) looked for new opportunities. They created wooden carts to haul their furs hundreds of miles to St. Paul to deal with American traders, who offered better prices.
The little-known story of 19th-century female entrepreneurs is a surprisingly appropriate launch for the sprawling “American Enterprise” exhibition, the centerpiece of the 45,000-square-foot Innovation Wing opening Wednesday at the National Museum of American History.
“Competition rules,” said Peter Liebhold, head of the museum’s Division of Work and Industry. “They were getting beat up. They were looking for opportunity, and they created the carts, a technological fix, and that created competition.”
The cart, which is displayed with beaver pelts and a top hat made of beaver skin, is one of hundreds of items displayed in the 13 different exhibitions and interactive and performance centers.
“If you think about the big themes of the exhibition — opportunity, innovation, competition and common good — this cart wraps up all of them,” Liebhold said.
The renovation of the first floor of the West Wing is part of a sweeping transformation of the American History museum, one of the most popular of the Smithsonian facilities. Four years and $63 million in the making, it completes the first stage of a six-year effort that continues with two more floors of new exhibitions expected to open by 2018.
“The overall goal is to tell the American story and what makes America America,” said David Allison, associate director of curatorial affairs and project director of “American Enterprise.” “What makes American business distinctive? On a national level, it’s the interplay of capitalism and democracy. On the personal level, it’s how do you balance your ambition and goals with the common good?”
Visitors will encounter the cluttered desk of Ralph Baer, considered to be the father of the video game industry, and poster-size images of patent drawings for Legos and the iPod. They can learn about the connection between innovation and geography in “Places of Invention,” which looks at six places — from the Bronx to Silicon Valley — and explores the connection between the space and the idea.
Kids can test their ingenuity and creativity in the interactive Object Project and Spark!Lab spaces. The wing also features a conference center and performance space, all intended to engage and inspire visitors.
“What we created is a neighborhood, a suite of exhibitions that don’t duplicate each other but amplify each other,” Liebhold said. “It’s like taking a diamond and looking at it from many different perspectives to see all its facets.”
The wing’s anchor is “American Enterprise,” a chronological overview of business history that begins in 1770 with the merchant era and continues to the global era of today. Some 600 objects represent multiple industries — from agriculture to manufacturing to information technology — and focus on themes of innovation, competition and democracy.
It also offers the consumer’s perspective, and that makes it feel new and fresh, Liebhold said. “Unlike old business history, which was just about the producers, this is about the push and pull between producers and consumers. Everybody is a consumer, so revealing the stories behind what you buy and why you buy it is a story they should care about.”
Liebhold hopes visitors appreciate the curators’ attempt to tackle some thorny issues and to present entrepreneurs in honest ways. As an example, he points to Thomas Edison, who is represented by several inventions.
“We think of Edison as a cultural icon, the great inventor, but our depiction of him is as a winner and loser,” he said, noting that both his successful light bulb and his talking baby doll, a heavy and expensive toy that did not captivate the public, are on view. “You get to see that in the United States there’s a tremendous acceptance of failure. It creates an environment where risk-taking is easier.”
1400 Constitution Ave. NW
Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily
Admission is free.
Wednesday is opening day of the new wing featuring 13 exhibitions and centers focused on American business, innovation and ingenuity. Special opening-day tours and events include the Lego Master Builders creating a giant American flag sculpture out of Lego bricks at 11 a.m.