America's Attic, Open Again

Doing our bit to keep the country in recession, we passed up the sales on Black Friday to check out the renovated Smithsonian Museum of American History. The museum, which just reopened after two years of renovations, is a great resource, though I can’t say that the renovation improved my experience very much.
There was some good news. First, we had to wait on line to get in. For anyone who cares about American history, that’s an encouraging sign.
Another good moment was standing in front of the lunch counter from Greensboro, NC, where a famous civil rights sit-in happened in 1960. A multi-generational African-American family was standing there, and I heard a woman explain to the kids, “In those days, you had to come in through the back door. Grandma remembers that. But it’s not like that now.” Everything about the exchange seemed good. The teaching, the caring, and that it’s not like that now.
Greensboro lunch counter, 1960
I loved seeing Kermit the Frog. It’s never been easy being green.
And the science exhibits were consistently interesting and well-presented in historical context: birth control, the atomic bomb, recombinant DNA, and today’s robot cars. All good stuff.
But there were some soft spots. A painstakingly prepared study traces two centuries of owners and residents of a house in Ipswich, Massachusetts. The exhibit reaches from Revolutionary War soldiers through Irish immigrant millworkers to Rosie the Riveters during World War II. I took a lively personal interest, because one chapter in The Summer of 1787 focused on two unlikely heroes from Ipswich, congressional delegate Nathan Dane and jack-of-all-professions Manasseh Cutler. Even though it’s a good idea, and plainly shows evidence of much hard work, the exhibit fell flat. Just never came alive for me.
And the pavilion on the American Presidency neither surprised nor delighted.
Worst of all, they ruined the gift shop. It used to be crammed full of interesting items: games, books, puzzles, and all sorts of odd things. Now, though, it’s set up like a high-end jewelry store, with great open spaces between the display tables and shelves. I would guess it has about 20 % of the selection that it used to have. I discovered a lamentable failure to carry my book, but almost half of the book space was devoted to products of the Smithsonian’s own imprint, which is now a joint venture with HarperCollins. As a taxpayer, I find this annoying. We should all have an equal shot at taxpayer-owned shelf space. Ah, well.
The museum is still a great place to visit, just not a lot better than it was.

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