“Tell me what YOU did at the Museum today!” Every evening, my husband and I exchange information about our activities at our respective places of employment. The Smithsonian—with some 6,000 staff, 6,000 docents and volunteers, 19 museums preserving about 137 million objects, and 9 research centers—just has more opportunities for interesting intrigues than the 125-person workforce at his office. The real meat and potatoes of my day revolves around the fascinating stuff that is the hallmark of the Smithsonian.
Here at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, I produce our every-Thursday-at-noon Meet Our Museum programs. I’ve been here for 20 years and know a little about a lot of the staff and their research on American history collections, so I am constantly cajoling associates to talk about their behind-the-scenes work to visitors, who love this type of program. As a result, programs will feature such topics as Carnival traditions in Puerto Rico, Duke Ellington’s score for “Anatomy of a Murder,” and the invention of the FlexStraw. I get to ask (and find out and share with my spouse before visitors know it, too): Where did that fascinating logo for cod liver oil come from? What’s the story behind the donation of that wedding dress? How did you restore and mount a fabric parade transparency for the Abraham Lincoln exhibition? Why is the John Bull locomotive such a marvel? Civil War soldier-printers those tiny toy-like presses in the field?
I try to organize the talks around topical or seasonal interests. Therefore, we’ll hear the story behind the founding of the NAACP revealed in a Scurlock photograph during Black History Month, and a discussion of a porcelain statue that features a Chinese immigrant struggling to get into the American “nest” in May (Asian Pacific American Heritage Month). Jazz and Earth-Day stories are in April, naturally, and we feature a discussion on the first Appalachian Trail thru-hiker during the summer outdoor season. Day of the Dead festivities in November, of course. Toys in December, check.
It’s not true that I skew the subjects or the schedule to fit the interests I have. Like my husband’s comment when asked to name his favorite cookie, he’ll say, “The one I’m eating now.” So it is with the Meet Our Museum talks—this week’s is the best!
Sue Walther is a programs coordinator at the National Museum of American History. She is an “engaged visitor” at every Meet Our Museum talk.