When you walk through the doors of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, you need to make a decision: Where should you look first?
The museum has in its collection more than 3 million artifacts, including Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz,” sheet music written by local legend Duke Ellington, and an authentic 199-ton, 92-foot-long Southern Railway locomotive.
There are also wigs from Latina American singer and “Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz, a Russian space suit worn by Sandra Bullock in the movie “Gravity” (2013), a Conestoga wagon — and more than two-dozen gowns worn by some of the nation’s most beloved first ladies.
The man who presides over all of the fascinating artifacts of the nation’s history, culture, and kitsch — and its $34 million budget, plus the renewal of the museum’s large West Exhibition Wing — is John Gray, who has been the director of the National Museum of American History since July 2012.
Gray is no stranger to big jobs, or big budgets. Prior to this post, he spent his career in banking and government service before becoming the director of the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles. There he enlarged the museum’s mission and scope, merging it with Colorado’s Women of the West Museum, and the Southwest Museum of the American Indian in Los Angeles.
We recently had a stimulating conversation with John Gray in his corner office atop the museum.
Scroll down for our Q&A, and learn why he says history “is the most fascinating subject anybody could ever try to understand.” Here’s to restoring enthusiasm in American history for kids, and their parents, too.
The Smithsonian’s John Gray Takes Us Beyond Dorothy’s Slippers
Hope Katz Gibbs: What is the focus of your work here at the Smithsonian, and what is the Smithsonian doing to help people, especially kids, become more interested in American history?
John Gray: American history is absolutely interesting; it is the most fascinating subject anybody could ever try to understand. The question is, how do you position it so that it is engaging to anyone, meaning everyone. At the museum, we decided that one way to make history engaging is to raise questions about larger ideas — such as American business, how did that develop? — and present the answers chronologically. People are drawn in because the topic interests them initially, and when they go through the exhibit they end up understanding more about that aspect of American history.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Take us on a virtual walking tour. And tell us, what do you hope people learn by the time they leave?
John Gray: When you walk into the museum, the first thing you’ll notice is the actual star-spangled banner — the American flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem. This flag, 200 years old today, is America’s symbol of resilience.
From there you choose: Are you interested in the American presidency, or the price of freedom, or how mobility created America across the country, or the first ladies’ dresses? For instance the first ladies’ gowns, which are enormously popular, convey the culture of a particular time in terms of what was considered fashionable and beautiful. But what is even more amazing is that every four years, Americans peaceably change presidential administrations, and then we celebrate it.
David Bruce Smith: How do you determine what people, especially kids, want to see in the Smithsonian?
John Gray: We actually have taken an aggressive approach to understanding what people are interested in, and how they learn as they walk through the museum. What is clear from the studies and research we’ve done is that we must engage visitors quickly and dynamically. Once that happens, they are apt to discover for themselves the treasures that this Smithsonian museum has in its numerous exhibits and halls.
David Bruce Smith: What I appreciate is that you don’t give history lessons here, but rather pull people into an area where they get excited about history. Pop culture is also a big part of what is here. Why do you think it is important to mix the past with the present when it comes to history education?
John Gray: Historical literacy is one of the great issues in America today, and we try to make the lives and the stories about the people who shaped our country come to life. So our exhibits are interactive, beautiful, and engaging. Since pop culture interests a large amount of people, we use that to get them engaged. For example, lots of people come in to see Dorothy’s ruby-red slippers, which is a lot of fun. Then, right nearby, they can learn about Ben Franklin, who in many ways was a pop-culture figure of his time.
David Bruce Smith: I also think a lot of people must enjoy the exhibit of Julia Child’s kitchen, right? In fact, five years ago I asked my oldest child, who was then 17, if she had ever heard of Julia Child. She said, “Dad everybody in my school watches Julia Child!” They see reruns of “The French Chef,” the cooking show Child created and hosted.
John Gray: Yes, we are very proud of that exhibit. And you are correct — Julia Child is still on television in reruns; so it seems that nearly everyone knows who she is. And when you go to the exhibition about her, you can see the last 50 years of development around food, which is actually a discussion of ethnicity, immigration, migration, and how people look at food.
David Bruce Smith: In fact, her kitchen is part of the exhibit called FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000, in which food serves as a portal for teaching Americans more about our history.
John Gray: Exactly. And we believe it is such a popular exhibit because every kid in America eats, and often loves, food. So to my earlier point, if you can use something as ubiquitous as food as a way to engage visitors, we can go beyond it and help them become more knowledgeable and excited about different aspects of history.
A case in point is the exhibit in the new West Wing, where we are doing a big show on democracy. In putting it together, we realized that the idea of freedom and the essential need to participate in the government should be the theme.
We all know that getting more people to vote is important; statistics show that voting numbers are abysmal. So how can we use American history to inspire more people to vote? First, they have to understand that casting their vote has an impact on their own lives. They may know it on some level, but not feel that a single vote will make a difference. But when they come here, and see that the history of our struggle for democracy is actually about the history of everybody in America struggling for their rights, their independence, and their freedom — it touches them. And hopefully, this experience will leave a lasting impression and make them want to go to the polls.
Hope Katz Gibbs: How do you get teachers involved in what you are doing here?
John Gray: We get 5 million visitors a year, and during the spring, summer, and fall, you can’t move in this place. We don’t need more visitors at that time, but we want to reach more people, so we’ve developed a very aggressive educational outreach program. We focus on two things — teachers and training — by bringing three-dimensional objects and programs into the classroom.
We also have webcasts and podcasts that reach around the country. One extraordinary new program, called American Stories, tells stories about the country’s history through 101 objects, including a fragment of Plymouth Rock, a section of the first transatlantic telegraph cable, and Apolo Ohno’s speed skates from the 2002 Winter Olympics. Objects are inherently interesting, and if they are used effectively, it really opens up an educational front for us so that we can work with even more teachers.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Are most people interested in a specific time period?
John Gray: Most people are interested in the lives of people they know, and those from recent history. We have to make it more compelling for people to go further back than that. For example, depending on their age, some people who walk into The Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibit don’t really understand the Vietnam War, while for others it was seminal to our development.
David Bruce Smith: What about the Civil War? That 150-year-old American conflict is still unresolved. Is that more popular than most?
John Gray: Yes it is; in fact the last Lincoln exhibition was hugely popular, and we are working on another one for next year. The Civil War had a big impact not only on civil rights, but also on the way government was financed and on the development of technology. People were surprised to discover during the symposium we held two years ago on the development of technology in the Civil War how that war spurred the rapid development of the use of cameras and firearms. That’s just one example of how expanding the way we look at the Civil War is very helpful to people.
David Bruce Smith: What is your favorite period in history?
John Gray: It depends on what I am reading! Right now I am particularly interested in the Revolutionary War and the period after that in which the philosophy of government became a practice of government. I find the intellectual power of the writings of Adams, Madison, and Jefferson fascinating, because it helps me understand how their beliefs shaped our government.
David Bruce Smith: What that means to me in part is that the new wave of immigrants must learn the history of their new land, so they know who John Adams and George Washington are, and all of the Founding Fathers and Founding Mothers. Otherwise it will divide the country.
John Gray: In fact, the museum holds naturalization ceremonies, in conjunction with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. And we find that today’s immigrants are desperate to understand the history of America. They want to become citizens, and it is pretty extraordinary. I think one large issue is that Americans are becoming regionalized, as opposed to global, citizens. Ultimately this museum has to find the common ground in which we can all be Americans.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Thank you so much for being with us, John. We encourage kids, parents, grandparents, and all those who love American history to come visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Images courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History