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Exploring diversity at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

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When you think of visiting the USA, you may consider visiting the hyperactive city of New York City, basking in the heat of Florida, or skating across the beaches of California. The USA is an extremely large country with a rich and diverse history and culture, with many different social elements, so how can you experience it all in one trip?

In Washington D.C the Smithsonian National Museum of American History promises to “help people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future”, according to its website. This museum is a perfect start to experience the diversity of the USA.

Located on the National Mall, just minutes from the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial that draws millions of visitors every year, the museum is free to enter and offers three floors of exhibits.

Whilst the museum isn’t laid out in a chronological or logical format, across the three floors you can hop from the depths of American Presidency to military history to the wonders of television in a matter of minutes. The museum definitely boasts information from across the centuries. 

Opened in 1964, it was originally named the Museum of History and Technology before being renamed in 1980 to the National Museum of American History we know today.

One of the most visually attractive exhibits is  “American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith” that takes you from 1779 all the way to the 21st century which is experiencing its own form of issues. 

Whilst the exhibit is rich with historical knowledge and artefacts from across the centuries the museum also acknowledges the struggle of those who fought to gain the vote and protests that have occurred throughout America’s history. Displaying protest signs from the freedom march to Nuclear weapon protests and most recently Black Lives Matter, this section of the exhibit also featured the video “why do you vote” with individuals speaking from across the country.  

American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith

This section of the exhibit definitely makes the space feel more personal and relevant to present day, especially with the controversial atmosphere created under the current presidency of Donald Trump.

An exhibit that somewhat lacks a personal touch to American life is the display of military history. Whilst the presentation of the exhibit is incredible with impressive life-like scenes and incredible paintings with detailed information, there was a distinct lack of representation of other individuals involved in American conflict.  

During my time at the museum in the civil war exhibit, one schoolboy asked: “Where’s the information about the slaves involved? I don’t care about the soldiers."

Military exhibit depicting the Vietnam War

If there is any information about those enslaved, it's hidden by glorified images of soldiers. The treatment of the Native Americans during the expansion westward is also brushed over, as is the impact the Vietnam War had on the Vietnamese people. The lack of transparency about the hundreds of thousands of lives affected throughout US history was disappointing. 

The exhibit itself was impressive, but not necessarily the most socially conscious. It felt heavily like propaganda, instead of an exhibit trying to present a non-bias view of history.

Despite that, the most important exhibits to visit are the “Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II” and “City of Hope: Resurrection City and the 1968 Poor People's Campaign” spaces. 

City of Hope pays homage to the 50th anniversary of Dr. Marin Luther King’s campaign to end poverty in the United States. It was a multi-ethnic movement that included a live-in demonstration in Washington D.C and protests nationwide that hoped to target poverty as a national human rights issue.

City of Hope: Resurrection City and the 1968 Poor Peoples Campaign

A sign in the space reads that in 1968, 35 million people, out of a population of 201 million, were living in poverty, meaning that 15.6% were living in poor conditions. By 2016, the percentage has risen to 18% with 40 million of a 322 million population living in poverty. In both years, people of colour have held the highest percentage of the poverty rates.

Featuring photographs and protest signs, this is definitely the most powerful exhibit in the museum and successfully tells the truth of a historical event and incorporates it into contemporary life. 

“Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II”, displays an important, yet less well known part of American history. Last year was the 75th anniversary of the Executive Order 9066 which resulted in the imprisonment of 75,000 Japanese Americans and the exhibit depicts the conditions these individuals faced.

However, it is one of the smaller spaces and tucked away into the corner, making it a room easily skipped by most visitors. 

Finally, an exhibit that should be visited during your time at the museum is “Many Voices, One Nation” which tracks the cultural geography of the people that make up the United States. The most powerful element of this exhibit is a hard-hitting video that depicts 21st century USA, and it's eclectic blend of different cultures and traditions from Eid to Pride to Christmas. 

The USA is a wonderfully diverse country, it is made up of so many voices that make the country what it is. If you want to experience the layers of the USA and find yourself in Washington D.C., the National Museum of American History is an excellent first step.




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