A new exhibit at the Smithsonian – American Enterprise in the Innovation wing of the National Museum of American History – is telling the history of American business and innovation. According to the Smithsonian, this exhibit “chronicles the tumultuous interaction of capitalism and democracy that resulted in the continual remaking of American business–and American life.” It is organized into four chronological eras: the Merchant Era (1770s -1850s), the Corporate Era (1860s -1930s), the Consumer Era (1940s – 1970s) and the Global Era (1980s – 2010s) and will, according to the press release, “convey the drama, breadth and diversity of America’s business heritage along with its benefits, failures and unanticipated consequences…”
I wanted to write about this exhibit because for the past two years I have been helping an employee at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History collect background information that would assist in developing this exhibit. Normally I don’t have any idea what happens after I have finished helping someone, but this time I do. It was rewarding to go see what I, in my small way, had helped create.
Walking though the exhibit I enjoyed seeing how the questions I was asked made their way into the exhibit. One of the earliest questions I had been asked was about the Singer building in New York City. There in the exhibit were not only the products that Singer made, but also a replica of their iconic building. I also saw the biographies of Jose Antonio Navarro and Madame C. J. Walker both of whom I had been asked about.
As this exhibit was about business in America, it is not surprising that I was asked questions about Wall Street, banking, finance, the rise of credit, and money, and those were definitely a prominent part of the exhibit. I enjoyed the video presentation with facts about stocks and trading that was playing on a screen placed within a New York Stock Exchange trading booth in the Wallace H. Coulter Exchange area.
What they were displaying dovetails nicely with the people, subjects, and topics that have been featured in blog posts here on Inside Adams and in business guides that Business Reference staff have produced. There were a number of fun objects from typewriters to a Monopoly board, as well as material related to the National Recovery Administration. The biography wall featured biographies on the likes of John Astor, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and James and John Ritty of cash register fame.
There were two large reoccurring elements throughout the exhibit -biographies and “Debating Enterprise.” The biography wall was quite interesting because it didn’t just include more well-known figures that made it into history books, but also featured the stories of those that should be more well-known like Jemmy an enslaved entrepreneur, Leo Baekeland, Gideon Sundback, and other inventors and entrepreneurs. The “Debating Enterprise” element was designed to highlight the continuing debate and differing ideas about American trade, business, and commerce illustrated by quotes from notable Americans of the day.
There was quite a bit of exhibit real estate devoted to another topic that I have touched on in several blog posts – advertising. Visitors could see the changes in advertising over the course of American history by looking at many of the iconic advertising characters and images – from the more current GEICO pig to the resurgent Mr. Peanut, to older examples like the “cigar store Indian” and advertisements for patent medicine.
There are a few other related nearby exhibits and areas that are also worth mentioning even though they aren’t really part of this exhibit. First is the Gallery of Numismatics, whose entrance looks like a bank vault and which features money and currency collection; another is a small exhibit of material for the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology. There are also two more interactive areas just across from the entrance to the exhibit. One is the Object Project focusing on “everyday things that changed everything” that features household and kitchen gadgets like vacuums, irons, etc. as well as a heavy focus on the bicycle with the historic interpreter program Meet the Wheelwoman. Next to that is a space for speakers to talk about aspects of the collections and American history.
I can’t really cover everything – you will just have to see for yourself. I do think that this exhibit disproves the myth that “business is boring.” It can be engaging and yes, even fun.
For those who are not in Washington don’t despair. There is a web site devoted to the exhibit at http://americanenterprise.si.edu/ as well as a Flickr photostream and companion book. To read more, there is also an interview on their blog with the director of curatorial affairs David Allison and an article in the Smithsonian Magazine. But if you are in the Washington area, go check it out!