There are two ways to deal with the recently reopened Smithsonian National Museum of American History. One, complain that it doesn’t present an overarching narrative of America’s past. Two, admit that’s an impossible, self defeating task—which story, exactly, is the story?—and relax into the textured multi media flow of America’s redesigned (and ever-changing) attic.
Walk the great entrance hall, lined with heirlooms from daily life, show biz and technology: A 1766 teapot protesting the Stamp Act, a Boston school bus window shattered during the 1970s integration conflicts and Star Wars’ C3PO.
Head downstairs and ogle your way through the Transportation section, where a dense but evocative presentation sets awesome artifacts (locomotives, streetcars, ships, autos) amidst an explanatory web of dioramas, charts, videos and placards. Together, they trace, with astonishing detail, the development of the nation’s transportation and distribution system, its tradeoffs, costs, social context and consequences (suburban sprawl, racism, pollution), and key people involved—from Dwight Eisenhower, who championed the interstates, to Bobby and Cynthia Troup, who wrote the immortal “Route 66” as they drove on it to California like millions of others, including Dust Bowl Okies such as Merle Haggard’s family.
Then cross to the Science wing, where astronomer Maria Mitchell’s telescope greets you from 19th-century Vassar. Much of the exhibit focuses on the painstaking growth of practical research—what we take for granted and call R&D—and is stuffed with fascinating equipment, from Hampton Institute (an all-black school formed after the Civil War) through the Manhattan Project in Chicago, New Mexico and Hanford, Wash. Finishing up are 1950s bomb shelters, Silent Spring, Earth Day, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and a case full of sci-fi wonders that have mostly become reality. And there are gadget-filled kid oriented rooms too.
Linger, be dazzled, and plan to come back. There’s a welter of data—tactile, visual, intellectual—crammed into America’s in exhaustible attic, memories and treasure that are well worth revisiting.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.