After 21 years, 3 months, and 4 days, I’m retiring from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It’s been a terrific ride.
Sue Walther (left) and Camy Clough prepare to mail posters to armed forces in Iraq.
I majored in American Studies in college and wasn’t trained in specific disciplines to study, collect, preserve, interpret, or display objects.However, my knowledge and understanding of ‘what it means to be an American’ has been broadened and deepened by my exposure to the living history, presented though those objects and theater programs, tours and talks, and yes, just by being in Washington, D.C.
During those two decades, the location of the American History building on Constitution Avenue between the White House and the Capitol has furnished a front-row seat to historic happenings. From presidential inaugural parades to state funerals, protest demonstrations and the Million Man March and Fourth of July fireworks, fellow staff and I could observe, collect, and conduct interviews. And sometimes we’d announce to colleagues that we were taking off our neutral, federal-government employee hat to become full-fledged participants in the history happening around us.
Trained in graphics, I started as a publications designer of print materials for public events: lectures, concerts, performances of film, song, and dance, and morphed into a programs producer. While that early work was defined by paste-ups for one- and two-color offset presses, the lessons I learned from three terrific editors continue to shape the words and images that we producers select to promote programs to the varied publics we serve. Now, however, we use Twitter and Facebook, blogs, e-mail newsletters, and updates on the museum’s Web site to convey those messages.
Like so many staff members, my job became a family affair—my mother bragged about my work and my children posed for publicity shots, helped test kid-friendly activities, and attended an inaugural party for the child of an incoming President. (Were they impressed? Probably not as much as their parents.) My husband listened—a lot!—to my concerns and musings, built and schlepped gear, was pressed into meet-and-greet service for major festivals, and got to wear a tux to fancy parties celebrating exhibition openings. (He always expressed appreciation for the themed food, music, and decor.)
Sue (far left) produces the Thursday noontime Meet Our Museum programs.
Colleagues throughout the Smithsonian became the proverbial ‘work family.’ We have celebrated birthdays and new babies, marked anniversaries, held surprise showers, and danced at weddings. The most memorable Hallowe’en potluck? We had to come dressed as ‘someone we’re not’—I wore a power suit, 3-inch heels, and carried a briefcase as a K-Street lawyer—and we ate only orange and black foodstuffs. Together, we have taken healthy walks, ridden our bikes, and rolled out our yoga mats. We have generously contributed sick-leave days and canned food and clothing and toys for annual charitable drives, worn “in memory of” signs at Races for the Cure, attended funerals, sent sympathy cards, and learned first-hand about accessibility and accommodations. We’ve rejoiced as special commendations or development efforts were awarded, struggled through at least two reorganizations, written vision statements and defined goals, reviewed evaluation studies and the latest research, and survived the museum’s two-year closing, renovation, and reopening. The year-in, year-out familiarity bred mutual appreciation for each other’s individual skills, incredible depth of knowledge, and work ethics.
Sue (far right) and museum
colleagues prepare for The Today Show.
So, why leave now? The usual reasons, I suppose: I meet the ‘age and service’ requirements to retire with a good benefits package, my commute to a new urban home in Baltimore has lengthened considerably, long-delayed projects and family members are clamoring for my undivided attention. The sweet sum of the proffered buyout helped, too. And now that I’ve made the decision, it’s really easy, because I have utter faith in the capabilities of the (mostly) younger staff throughout the museum, but especially in my office, to adapt to the rapidly changing requirements for federal service in general and the museum world and the Smithsonian in particular. This up-and-coming generation of museum professionals will forge an even more exciting National Museum of American History. The lessons I learned here will enrich whatever paths I take in the future.
Susan Walther is a public programs coordinator at the National Museum of American History.