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Entering a museum with three floors, three million artifacts, and three dozen displays and exhibitions can be intimidating. That's why we decided to create "We the People," a new introductory film that made its public debut in our Warner Bros. Theater on December 16. Produced in collaboration with Smithsonian Channel, the 20-minute video provides an overview of American history to illustrate the museum's mission and connect visitors with its collections.
John Gray, director of the museum, brought his proposal for an introductory film to Smithsonian Channel in the summer of 2014, and the Channel agreed to make it as a gift. The first film of its kind at any Smithsonian site, "We the People" was an ambitious undertaking. It had to distill the essence of the museum, the nation's history, and its people into a succinct, streamlined narrative.
"The video can help American citizens and visitors from all over the world understand some key ideas and pivotal events in our nation's history," said Jaya Kaveeshwar, senior advisor to the director. "As our visitors explore our unparalleled collection of national treasures and engage with American history, the film helps to knit these experiences together and demonstrate that history matters."
An executive producer for Smithsonian Channel, Linda Goldman admits the project's sprawling scope was daunting, but she emphasizes that the team at the network was honored and excited to contribute.
"It was an opportunity to use our skills as filmmakers and storytellers and combine them with the museum's scholarship and deep knowledge," she said. "We thought it would be a very exciting thing to work together to create a film that was going to be a lasting part of the museum visitor experience."
The year-and-a-half-long process began with extensive research. This involved not only talking to curators and combing collections and archives but also watching introductory films featured in other museums and historical sites, such as Mount Vernon, to understand what makes them effective.
"One of the big questions that we wrestled with early on was, why was this film in this museum?" Goldman said. "What story could the National Museum of American History tell that's unique, that couldn't be a video someplace else?"
Some debate surfaced concerning the film's structure. While Smithsonian Channel filmmakers thought it should be organized chronologically, museum staff countered that it should be organized thematically to mirror the museum's design. As David Allison, associate director for Curatorial Affairs and lead content advisor on the project, pointed out, a thematic approach is appropriate for an institution about American history.
"The United States is a country that is, in fundamental ways, based on ideas," he said. "It's not based on a particular piece of land, not a particular racial or ethnic group. It's a country that was created deliberately based on a Declaration of Independence and on principles."
In the end, they compromised: the film would present a chronological summary of U.S. history as the framework through which to explore specific themes. Allison and scriptwriter Alicia Green worked to fine-tune the central message, perusing museum exhibitions for inspiration. The three recurring concepts that emerged—democracy, opportunity, and freedom—form the backbone of "We the People."
Another way "We the People" distinguishes itself from other orientation videos is by integrating museum objects into its narrative. For example, during the section on the woman suffrage movement, footage of a march is overlaid with the image of an authentic "Votes for Women" pin from the museum's collection.
"There's nothing like being in the presence of an iconic artifact, but there's also something really wonderful about using media and storytelling to help place the artifact in a more historical context," Goldman said. "We're combining images, music, and narration across time and space. They add dimension to the story and hopefully help take people back to the past."
Associate Producer Kiki Spinner and Art Director Catherine Eunice worked closely together to find relevant visuals and assemble them into a cohesive, aesthetically pleasing vision. Sometimes they had to be creative. It was especially difficult to track down quality images of early historical events, before photography had been invented.
"That was a challenge in terms of taking what we found, using the historical documents that we found and integrating them into a visually interesting composition," Eunice said. "If [the images] were low-resolution, we could integrate them into the presentation with many images on the screen at the same time, or we could integrate them into the background."
The filmmakers also struggled with incorporating the Star-Spangled Banner. They knew it had to feature prominently, being an icon of both the country and the museum, but it didn't fit in the required time limit without losing its emotional impact. Instead of telling the full story of Francis Scott Key and the anthem, then, they decided to weave the flag throughout the film as a visual motif.
"It could become a 'fabric of America' analogy in the film that comes back again and again," Green said. "So, the viewer hopefully understands that we're not going to be able to point to one thing that pulls America together but many different things that work as one."
Hard choices surfaced at every turn. It is, after all, impossible to recount the entirety of American history in less than half an hour. A few criteria helped inform decisions about what to include. For starters, the film deviates from the traditional method of tracing history through wars. Some, including World War I, are noticeably missing. According to Allison, this stems less from a wish to be innovative than a desire to accurately represent the museum.
"I understand the importance of how wars are defining episodes in American history," he said. "But we didn't want that to dominate the film because it really doesn't dominate the museum."
Also, in keeping with the themes of democracy, opportunity, and freedom, it was essential for the film to feel relatable. That's why the overarching narrative of politics and conflict is interspersed with segments about inventions and advertising; why the opening consists of bird's-eye views of the American landscape; and why the various famous quotes recited during the video are read by regular people, reminding us that earlier events shape our lives today. The film takes advantage of art's singular power to make the distant past immediate.
Spinner said, "I was very impressed with the Civil War images, being able to find some of those portraits in the montage where you're seeing families after the war and some of the destruction as Reconstruction is happening . . . and being able to say, 'Wow, you know, even though that was such a long time ago, those emotions are very real. People connect to them.'"
All involved attribute the project's success to a strong partnership between the two teams. At each stage of the script and editing, the filmmakers requested feedback from the museum, talking to curators such as Allison and Barbara Clark Smith, the museum’s 18th-century expert, as well as to liaisons, including Kaveeshwar and Valeska Hilbig, deputy director in the Office of Communications and Marketing. Suggestions constantly traveled back and forth. A rough cut of the film was shown to the entire museum staff, who were invited to share comments.
"We wanted the video to be really representative of this museum, and in doing so, we wanted to reach out to the broadest spectrum of voices," Kaveeshwar said. "Just like in every collaborative project, there needs to be a lot of mutual respect and a lot of open thinking."
For now, the only thing left to do is wait and hope the public responds. "We the People" will be shown four times a day during its pilot phase, and museum staff and volunteers will monitor audience response.
Either way, those behind the film are proud of their work. They believe it will enrich visitors' understanding of the museum and American history.
"We hope that people leave feeling energized and inspired and positive about our country," Goldman said. "We hope people will gain new insight that enriches their museum experience, and that they will see how they and their families are also a part of our nation's story. At its core, this country is just a remarkable experiment in many ways. We make history every single day—we all do—and that's the biggest message we hope people take with them."
Amy Woolsey is an intern in the Office of Communications and Marketing.
How did the universe begin? And what came before the Big Bang? Cosmologists have asked these questions ever since discovering that our universe is expanding. […]
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From Feburary 1-5, 2016 the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) is encouraging cultural institutions and crayon enthusiasts to join together for #ColorOurCollections. Institutions such as NYAM, the Biodiversity Heritage Library and the Smithsonian Libraries will provide inspiration and coloring sheets for artists of all ages to fill in. Colorers can share their creations on more »
While swimming off of the big island of Hawaii in Kealakekua Bay, I saw what first appeared to me as a coral head. As I approached I saw movement within the shape. To my surprise it was an enormous school of fish, tightly packed, and numbering in the tens of thousands. I dove down and took a few photos before continuing my swim.
It turns out this giant group was made up of akule—Hawaiian for bigeye scad. Over the next year I would occasionally see a school of akule; I would take a few pictures, then be on my way...
Stardate 1601.28: After a year of extensive research, conservation work on the original studio model of the USS Enterprise is now underway in the Museum’s spacedock. Our goal is to stabilize the model and return it to its appearance from August of 1967, during the filming of the episode The Trouble with Tribbles, which marked the last ...Continue Reading
Now that it’s cold outside, this is the perfect time to think of warmer temperatures and perhaps a vacation. The Trade Literature Collection at the National Museum of American History Library includes a lot of railway-related catalogs but not all of them are about equipment and supplies. Some are directed towards the tourist, like this more »
Textiles from samplers to baby bonnets reveal participation—and exclusion—in American democracy and culture
This week, we're exploring how participation—people joining together to accomplish shared goals—shapes American life by exploring our textile collections. Earlier this week, I shared with you the touching story of a quilt sewn by a Sunday school group for Civil War soldiers. Today, I want to share a few other objects that hint at stories of participation and its sometimes complicated flip side—exclusion.
1. Americans helped French women rebuild war-torn communities through needlework
During World War I, French women embroidered detailed cross-stitched tableaux depicting soldier figures, flags, and coats of arms. While battles raged, these women fought to maintain their livelihoods and rebuild their war-torn communities. The embroidered items were sold in America through the Society for Employment of Women in France, and the money from their sale went back to the women and their families in France. Their contributions went beyond textiles, however. They also took to the fields during the summer and tended crops.
See cocktail napkins with coats of arms of Allied nations and learn more about these brave women.
2. Americans bought Belgian lace to provide war relief
When the German army invaded Belgium (a neutral country) in August 1914 in preparation to invade France, the British navy blockaded Belgium's harbors in order to cut off German supply lines. This presented a major problem as Belgium depended on imports for 80% of its food supply. Herbert Hoover set up the Commission for Relief in Belgium, negotiated food deliveries, then worked on an agreement allowing the importation of thread and the exportation of lace made with the thread. This effort helped thousands of Belgian lace makers earn money for food for their families. Throughout the Allied countries, people bought generously of these "war laces" to help support the Belgians.
Browse through our impressive collection of World War I laces in our online object group.
3. Young women created samplers to showcase their skills and record family history
Our objects often reveal interesting details about the lives of notable figures in American history; for instance, we know what was likely on George Washington's desk to help him write in the evenings. But the lives of regular folk are sometimes less easy to picture unless, for example, they left behind a purse stuffed with primary source documents that historians can use to better understand their biographies.
This is why I love samplers. Often made by girls as young as seven or eight whose names might have otherwise been forgotten or lost to history, samplers help us understand how girls were prepared for their roles in family and community life. For example, a sampler made by one M.A. Hofman provides a glimpse of what public school education was like for a young girl in Pennsylvania in the 1840s—and how education differed for male and female students.
Before woman suffrage passed in 1920, women were often barred from participating in many aspects of political life, but some samplers hint at other avenues of participation that women were able to take advantage of. Betsy Bucklin's 1781 sampler defies British rule to express faith in George Washington, a rare glimpse into the political thinking of a young woman during the Revolutionary War. Of course, it's hard to know how much choice a student had in selecting the message and design of her own sampler, but even if this message was part of an assignment, I still find it interesting for the time period. Some women used their needlework and skilled handling of sewing machines to support their families, using tools like these. Though they may seem small and quaint on the surface, samplers did leave a little mark on history. At least two of our samplers (one by Elizabeth Holland, the other by Esther Tincom) include the following rhyme: "When I am dead and gone and all my bones are rotten, I leave this sampler behind, I may not be forgotten."
Explore the samplers in our collection and see what you can learn about how some girls and young women participated in their families, schools, churches, and communities.
4. Exclusion, business success, and cultural identity were woven into the Lee family textiles
After immigrating from Guangdong Province, China, to San Francisco in 1881, Lee B. Lok (1869–1942) moved to Chinatown in New York City. He found work at the Quong Yuen Shing & Co. general store. By 1894, he became head of the store and upgraded his identity papers from "coolie" to "merchant," a change that allowed him to avoid restrictions imposed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which barred the entry of Chinese laborers who had not already been in the United States. He was able to return to China to marry Ng Shee around 1900 and then return to New York. Living above the store at 32 Mott Street, the couple raised seven children.
Lee went on to found the Chinese Merchants Association and become a prominent member of the Chinese community in New York—a great example of community participation—but U.S. laws barred him from citizenship.
From the trunk Ng Shee brought with her from China to New York to the baby bonnet she made for her only son, the Chinese American textiles in the Virginia Lee Mead Collection tell powerful stories of cultural identity.
5. Quilts raised funds for community causes
Complete with an American flag and an appliquéd and embroidered fire engine marked "Yale 1," this quilt is marked "Ladies' Donation / to the Fireman's Fair / Yale Engine Co. No. 1 / South Reading / July 1853." This quilt, so carefully worked, is an example of efforts by women of South Reading, then a small rural New England town, to work together to provide for their community. A new engine house was erected in South Reading, Massachusetts, in 1853.
From how they were made to how they were interpreted by those who wore or saw them, textiles offer much to explore when we think about participation in American life. Are there treasured textiles in your family history—perhaps a wedding gown made from unusual fabric, a military uniform, or quilt that raised funds for a special cause? Do these perhaps have tales to tell of participation or exclusion in American democracy and culture? Share your stories in the comments below or on social media. To follow the conversation, check out our #AmericaParticipates website and our posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr.
Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department. Patri O'Gan, Leah Tams, Jordan Grant, Madelyn Shaw, Doris Bowman, Virginia Eisemon, Karen Thompson, Timothy Winkle, and Nancy Davis contributed to this blog post.
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Since 2014, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Library (HMSG) has received grants totalling $15,000 to catalog materials of Latin American artists. Former Smithsonian American Art Museum Curatorial Assistant, Florencia Bazzano-Nelson, explains why these materials are important: “Scholarly holdings regarding Latin American art are important because they provide the historical and cultural context for many more »
The post New to the Hirshhorn Library: Latin American Artists appeared first on Smithsonian Libraries Unbound.
One of my biggest joys of the winter season is receiving holiday cards from my friends and family. On the other hand, I am terrible about sending cards myself. Imagine being Dick Konter, who had promised over 800 people that he would write to them while on a polar expedition to Antarctica! Richard Konter served ...Continue Reading
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Mothers, you will relate. Meet your bluntly honest children. Ask your little one a question about yourself – all the while...
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When people think of costumes, they tend to think of elaborate, old-fashioned gowns, like the ones in Victorian novel adaptations. Sometimes, however, a fictional character's most significant piece of clothing is something simple—a hat, perhaps. Take Walter White. The chemistry teacher-turned-meth dealer played by Bryan Cranston in AMC's acclaimed series Breaking Bad dons a porkpie hat at the end of season one and adopts the alias "Heisenberg." This marks a turning point for Walt, the precise moment when his soul is corrupted.
Given how crucial the hat is to Walt and the show as a whole, I was pleased to find it among the Breaking Bad artifacts that the museum acquired from Sony Pictures Television, along with a bag of (fake) blue meth, Tyvek lab suits, and other props and costumes. Several cast members and producers attended the November 10 donation ceremony, including show creator Vince Gilligan and Cranston himself.
Porkpie hats have been prominent in American culture since Charlie Chaplin sported one in his silent films, according to Dwight Blocker Bowers, the museum's emeritus entertainment curator. Walt's is more than just a fashion choice. Not only does it enhance his connection to Werner Heisenberg, the German scientist who established the uncertainty principle and inspired White's alter ego, but the hat also ties him to a past era. It transforms him, granting him a kind of mythic status.
"America certainly deals with the self-made man," Bowers said. "Part of the drive is that this was a new country at one time. You could come here and leave everything that you had in your previous place of living and start a new you. I think that goes with the turf. You can go to any environment here and just literally built your own identity. . . . The hat allows [Walt] to make that transition."
Inspired by the acquisition of the Heisenberg hat, I sat down with Bowers to discuss other famous hats in the museum's entertainment collections.
In the mid-1950s, ABC aired a five-part miniseries that featured Davy Crockett wearing a coonskin cap. It elevated the real-life frontiersman from folk hero to genuine icon and launched a nationwide fashion craze, its lighthearted depiction of an untamed West no doubt resonating with audiences mired in suburbia. Man and hat have been inseparable ever since.
Appropriated from traditional American Indian clothing, the coonskin cap served as hunting apparel for 18th and 19th century European settlers in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee, Crockett’s home state. Most likely, it was worn for warmth as well as ornamentation, making use of a whole raccoon’s fur, including its head and tail. These hardy origins make the coonskin cap an apt symbol for the American West, evoking the sense of rugged self-reliance romanticized by stories such as Davy Crockett.
Ann Miller, a dancer, singer, and actress renowned for her 1940s and '50s Hollywood musicals, starred in a 1971 commercial for Heinz's Great American Soup, where she demonstrated her tap-dancing skills on an eight-foot soup can. Her outfit consisted of a red satin leotard decorated with sequins and rhinestones and this silk, star-studded top hat. If such an ostentatious, flagrantly patriotic ensemble seems out of place in the cynical Vietnam War period, it perfectly matches the jaunty tone of director Stan Freberg's commercial, intended as a parody of the musical spectacles that Miller specialized in during her film career.
Bowers observed that Miller's hat recalls the iconic Uncle Sam hat. "It immediately tells the audience that this is an American dancer," he said.
J. R. Ewing, the ambitious oil tycoon at the center of CBS's 1978–1991 prime time soap opera Dallas, wore this feathered cowboy hat as a statement. Besides associating him with the loner heroes of Western lore, it emphasizes his status as a citizen of Texas and a patriarch, helping set him apart from other people.
"The hat is like his crown because it's a stoop with a brow of feathers around the crown and makes him look sort of like a king," Bowers said. "The character who wears that is someone who blazes trails."
No image of Indiana Jones is complete without two accessories: the bullwhip and the hat. Who could forget the moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Harrison Ford's daredevil archaeologist reaches under a closing door at the last minute to grab his dropped felt fedora? Like Davy Crockett, Indiana Jones is an explorer, venturing into uncharted territory, and his well-worn hat reflects that adventure-seeking spirit.
"It certainly allows him to have the sweep of a hero," Bowers said. Probable influences include the headgear of safari leaders and comic strip detectives, both indicative of Indiana Jones's pulpy origins.
Not long ago, the museum acquired a fedora worn by Don Draper in AMC's other critically acclaimed series, Mad Men. In stark contrast to Jones's, which complements his rough-and-tumble lifestyle, Draper's conveys an air of professionalism, especially accompanied by a trench coat. It would've been part of everyday attire for a middle-class man in the 1960s, when the show takes place.
The Mad Men era also heralded the decline of hats in American fashion, the moment they went from necessities to embellishments.
"The 1960s advocated a casual approach to life, less structure," Bowers explained. "Now [hats are] just one extra thing to carry. There is a degree of formality that's gone from society. Just like women always wore white gloves in the late 1950s/early 1960s, that's gone with the loosening of American culture, taking away the sense of pomp and circumstance and ceremony."
Even as relics, though, hats reveal a great deal about American culture: what our values are, who we regard as heroes, and how we see ourselves. They are symbols of our identities, both individual and collective.
Amy Woolsey is an intern in the Office of Communications and Marketing.
On December 18, 1915, Edith Bolling Galt married President Woodrow Wilson in a ceremony at her home in Washington, D.C. This very private event was celebrated in a very public way by the Sussex Print Works, of Newton, New Jersey. The firm created four printed dress silks, in black and white, titled "Bolling Crest," based on the design of swallows and ants (yes, ants) featured on the coat of arms of the Bolling family in England. The manufacturer noted in its publicity that "the original black on white shield may yet be seen in Bolling Hall, Bradford, England, which has now been turned into a national museum."
The color black may seem like an odd addition to fabric celebrating a wedding, but there was a reason for the color choice. German firms were the most important manufacturers of synthetic textile dyes and colorants in the early 20th century. In March 1915, several months after the beginning of World War I, the British navy began to blockade German ports, preventing any exports of goods overseas. As a result, the textile and paper industries in the still-neutral United States suffered a serious shortage of good quality synthetic (chemically based) dyes. "Sulfur black" was the one dye that firms outside Germany produced in quantity and of consistent quality. Some firms reverted to old technology, and tried to adapt old formulas for natural dyes to modern industrial needs, but the quantities were small and the color range limited, and not always fast to light or washing.
Fashion magazines from the period illustrate the efforts by many leading American textile and fashion manufacturers to create a fad for black and white clothing and accessories. French and English fashion firms, suffering under the same dye shortage, were also promoting black and white. In those countries, however, already at war, black and white clothing carried overtones of loss and mourning that were not yet relevant to most Americans.
When the U.S. entered the war on the Allied side in April 1917, anti-German feeling was rampant. Many companies owned or managed by men with German-sounding names abruptly changed their names or merged with other firms under new names. Among these was National Aniline & Chemical Co., of Buffalo, New York, which was formed in 1917 from the merger of Schoellkopf Aniline and Chemical of Buffalo, Beckers Aniline and Chemical of Brooklyn, and the Benzol Products Company. National Aniline, and other American dye companies—all of which produced pharmaceuticals and other chemicals as well as dyestuffs—received a gift from the U.S. government in November 1917, when Congress passed the Trading with the Enemy Act. This allowed American companies producing goods that contributed to the war effort to confiscate enemy-owned patents and use the technology in their own manufacturing. Through what has been called "compulsory licensing," the dye shortage ceased.
The Sussex Print Works began operating as a department of the Thomas W. Bentley Silk Company in 1885. Thomas Bentley was born in England, but his family moved to the United States when he was 11. He learned the silk business as an employee of Doherty & Wadsworth, a silk manufacturing company that had opened in Paterson, New Jersey,—America's "Silk City"—in 1879, before opening his own silk mill in 1885.
The company name changed twice, to the Sterling Silk Mill and then Valentine & Bentley, before the Sussex Print Works was spun off in 1911 as an entity on its own, under the leadership of Bentley, his son Herbert Bentley, and Harry T. Rounds. It specialized in dyeing, printing, and finishing all silk, silk and cotton, and silk and wool textiles, and was highly regarded within the industry for quality production. Valentine & Bentley became Bentley & Twohey in 1915, and continued in business as a manufacturer of silk fabrics until 1932.
Madelyn Shaw is a curator in the Division of Home and Community Life. She recommends checking out the Bolling Crest Silks online object group for more information.
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