The National Museum of American History has devoted entire exhibits to voting machines, polio and Kansas City jazz, but it’s never chronicled American-style capitalism. On July 1, the museum will rectify that oversight in a major way, with a 45,000-square-foot innovation wing including sections on business, money, advertising and consumer culture.
“Understanding the business development of the nation and its corresponding social effects is fundamental to the lives of American people,” museum director John Gray says.
The wing’s renovation and exhibits cost a total of $63 million, $43 million of which came from donations from companies such as Monsanto, Motorola and Intel — all three of which are represented in the “American Enterprise” exhibit. That’s a coincidence, says David Allison, the museum’s associate director for curatorial affairs.
“All the content is determined by the Smithsonian,” he says. “We don’t send it out for review.”
The goal of the wing, Allison adds, is not to sell a particular message, but to give people the opportunity to learn about the history of American capitalism. Indeed, a display about the World Trade Organization protests stands near a glass case showing the napkin upon which economist Arthur Laffer famously drew a graph to explain supply-side economics to Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in 1974.
“We are trying to tell all those stories not from a perspective that we have some message to preach, but by giving you an environment in which you can explore and find your own meaning,” Allison says.
For instance, a wall at the end of the “American Enterprise” exhibit shows a collage of faces interspaced with words like “producer” and “inventor.”
“Our question, when you leave, is how will you fit into this story?” Allison says. “Are you a producer, consumer, innovator? What is your role going to be?”
Is labor activist an option?
“Well, we didn’t try to list all of them,” he says.
The new innovation wing of the National Museum of American History is packed with nearly 2,000 objects and 165 interactive activities. Here are some of our favorites, organized by the exhibit in which they appear.
Goal: To tell the story of capitalism in America.
Selfie spot: By the Red River cart, used in the mid-1800s by businesswomen of mixed American Indian and European descent to transport furs along the border of the United States and Canada, thus cutting out the middlemen and getting better deals for their goods.
Where to park your hyperactive kids: The “Tower of Power,” where four people turn cranks to race colored lights to the top of a corporate-looking building.
What you’ll want to steal: An original Barbie doll, made in 1958, wearing a zebra-striped bathing suit and way too much mascara for the beach.
Thing that’ll make you feel old: An original 1989 Game Boy, which is way clunkier than you may remember.
Goal: To illustrate the origins and future of money
Selfie spot: Next to the exhibit’s 1.5-ton vault door, the perfect spot for you to pretend to be Scrooge McDuck.
Object that will make you appreciate credit cards: The 169-pound stone ring once used as currency on the island of Yap.
What you’ll want to steal: Pretty much everything, especially the $100,000 bill.
Thing you may already have: The Square Reader, which attaches to smartphones to process credit card payments.
Goal: To showcase America’s innovation hotspots, from the late 1800s to today.
Selfie spot: Pose with a director’s clapboard in front of a giant picture of the fighting trees from “The Wizard of Oz.”
Where to have a DJ battle: Two turntables in the 1970s Bronx section provide the opportunity to freestyle to a backbeat, or learn to scratch with an instructional video.
Coolest object: The movie camera that was used to shoot “The Wizard of Oz,” which stands alongside a display explaining how Technicolor works.
Where to rest your tired dogs: At the center of the exhibit is a mish-mash of old-fashioned seating, meant to evoke communal spots, like cafes and bars, where people often get their best ideas.
Goal: Show how everyday consumer goods, such as bicycles and refrigerators, changed people’s lives.
Selfie spot: An old-fashioned bicycle that you can perch on without fear of falling off, because it’s held steady by a hidden staircase.
Best anachronistic game show: A realistic “The Price Is Right” game quotes vintage advertisements for washing machines and other items, then lets three players guess their historical prices.
Object that wouldn’t last three seconds on the streets of D.C.: An 1896 bike customized by Tiffany & Co., with ivory handlebars, leafed with gold and silver and encrusted with diamonds and emeralds.
Thing that will make you appreciate your busted smartphone: An early cellphone made by Motorola in 1990. It was the size of a brick, weighed 2.5 pounds and offered 30 minutes of battery life.
National Museum of American History, 1400 Constitution Ave. NW; runs indefinitely, free.
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