How to Celebrate American Industry on the National Mall

A museum of American innovation should encompass more than our high tech achievements.

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If you doubted that the Smithsonian is the favorite piñata of the Washington Post, consider Steven Pearlstein's column on proposals to build a Latino museum in the old Arts and Industries Building. In its place he endorses another project:

An informal group comprised of academics, technologists and think-tank executives, calling themselves Makers on the Mall, have come together to push this idea with Congress, the Smithsonian and the Washington tourist industry. Their next stop will be at the corporate headquarters of some of the country's leading technology companies, and my guess is the executives will see the logic of providing financial support for a national museum celebrating American ingenuity and industrial competitiveness that might help to excite a new generation of American inventors and tinkerers. With backing and encouragement from Congress and the White House, the group should be able to handily raise the endowment necessary to renovate and operate the museum.

What has made the United States the most powerful and affluent nation on Earth has not only been its ability to attract ambitious immigrants from all of the world, but also its knack for discovering and commercializing the latest technology. It is part of our common heritage and it most desperately needs to be part of our common future. ... 

The name? That's easy. The National Museum of Arts and Industry.

Mr. Pearlstein doesn't mention that the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History already has the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation with a mandate for documenting and encouraging ingenuity, although its display space is limited. (I'm a research affiliate, but my opinions in this post and otherwise are not necessarily theirs.) 

Since I haven't found a statement by Makers on the Mall, or a list of the sponsors, I can't comment on the group itself. In fact, I can imagine heartily endorsing its plans. But at the moment, their home page redirects only to a months-old Forbes Magazine column.

Unfortunately Mr. Pearlstein's statement also leaves too many questions. First among them is whether such a museum is to be one of American manufacturing -- as the original 1876 Philadelphia exposition once housed in the building reflected the post-Civil War boom  -- or whether it will be a shrine to high-tech self-promotion. Nationally, Apple Stores do the latter better than any museum could, and I love to visit them. But they're about American design and marketing ingenuity, and Apple has not been known for openness about how or even where its products are made.

Ironically a museum celebrating American ingenuity alone risks displaying the same kind of group identity that Mr. Pearlstein deplores -- on behalf of the information technology tribe. It need not. So I offer an amendment. Make it the National Museum of American Manufacturing, starting with the pioneer axe and the Kentucky rifle (a German-American innovation, by the way), proceeding through the watch industry that Switzerland copied, the shoe machinery breakthrough of the African-American Jan Matzeliger (United Shoe Machinery, which bought his key patent, was the Microsoft of the 1890s), and continuing with Henry Ford and lesser-known process innovators to the latest robotics. A museum focusing on skills and processes would complement the invention orientation of the National Museum of American History and could draw on many artifacts now in remote storage. And manufacturing history is also immigration history down to our own time; Latinos have helped revive the Georgia carpet industry, for example. Videos like those of the cable TV series How It's Made can bring factories into the exhibit hall in a way that would surely please the 19th-century organizers.

Advocates of a national industrial museum should pay a visit to the Deutsches Museum in Munich, which remains a model of combining national pride with great scholarship and public outreach. A new Museum Arts & Industries could learn a lot from it.



Image: Night shift in Wheaton Glass Works, Millville, N.J./Library of Congress.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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