National Museum of American History’s New Exhibition Goes “On the Water”

May 22, 2009
News Release
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The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History today opens “On the Water: Stories from Maritime America,” a new, permanent exhibition designed to engage the public in a dynamic exploration of America’s maritime heritage. The 8,500-square-foot exhibition builds on the Smithsonian’s unparalleled National Watercraft Collection of rigged ship models, patent models, documents and images to bring the sights, sounds and stories from the oceans, inland rivers and coastal communities to the museum’s millions of visitors.

During a special ceremony today to commemorate National Maritime Day and open the exhibition to the public, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and retired Vice Adm. Albert J. Herberger joined Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough and Museum Director Brent D. Glass in honoring the sacrifices of America’s Merchant Mariners with a memorial wreath ceremony.

“The maritime influence on American history is one of the most compelling chapters in the national story,” said Glass. “‘On the Water’ will transport visitors to places they have never been, allowing them to experience life at sea through the experiences of real people and objects from one of the Smithsonian’s oldest collections.”

Using 360 artifacts and 390 images and graphics, “On the Water” explores life and work on the nation’s waterways, discovering the stories of fishermen, shipbuilders, merchant mariners, passengers and many others. From 18th-century sailing ships, 19th-century steamboats and fishing craft to today’s mega containerships, the exhibition reveals America’s maritime connections through objects, documents, audiovisual programs and interactives. Visitors will discover the continuous and significant role maritime activity has played in American lives.

A companion exhibition to “America on the Move,” which explores how transportation has changed America, “On the Water” is made possible by the A.P. Møller and Chastine
Mc-Kinney Møller Foundation.

Exhibition Highlights
“On the Water” is organized into seven sections and focuses primarily on maritime life in America from the 17th century to the present. The seven sections are arranged chronologically: Living in the Atlantic World, 1450-1800; Maritime Nation, 1800-1850; Fishing for a Living, 1840-1920; Inland Waterways, 1820-1940; Ocean Crossings, 1870-1969; Answering the Call, 1917-1945; and Modern Maritime America.

The exhibition incorporates the stories of real people—sailors, immigrants, fishermen and many others—to allow visitors to explore American history through personal experiences. Objects, graphics and interactives transport visitors onto sailing ships, a Mississippi River towboat, ocean liners, an Alaskan fishing trawler, a U.S. Coast Guard buoy tender, cruise ships and tankers to give them to get a taste of life “On the Water.”

Among the highlighted objects on display are highly detailed, large ship models, including the tobacco ship “Brilliant,” which visitors encounter on entering the exhibition, and a cutaway of the modern factory trawler “Alaska Ocean”; a real whaleboat; a lifesaving car successfully used to rescue shipwreck survivors; artifacts on loan from the North Carolina Maritime Museum from Blackbeard’s ship, the “Queen Anne’s Revenge,” such as a cannonball and a small amount of gold dust; a large, slowly rotating ship’s propeller from the steamship “Indiana”; and the actual engine room from a 1920s’ buoy tender. Also included in the exhibition are costumes, coins, weapons, tools, consumer goods and marine specimens.

“On the Water” includes objects from across the nation—the inland waterways as well as the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Gulf Coast—linking maritime activity to larger stories in American history, such as the maritime component of the California gold rush.

Companion Web Site
The companion Web site to “On the Water” contains the same historical content as the physical exhibition. The site also features a searchable database that provides additional information and photographs for selected artifacts in the exhibition. Multimedia resources and educational activities, including an associated Flickr group where visitors can upload their own maritime-related imagery, round out the online experience. The site launches concurrently with the exhibition and is available at

Public Programming and Educational Activities
To celebrate the opening of the permanent exhibition, the museum offers maritime-related activities throughout Memorial Day weekend, May 23-25. Visitors will have the opportunity to hear traditional sea shanties and other maritime music performed by the Washington Revels throughout the weekend. Families can—for a small fee—build and sail their own small wooden ships, provided by Sea Worthy Small Ships of Frederick, Md., on the museum’s Mall terrace. A full schedule of activities will be available at the museum’s Welcome Center on the second floor and the information desk on the first floor, as well as on the museum’s Web site,

Three new educational activities related to “On the Water” will be added to the museum’s “Smithsonian’s History Explorer,” an educational Web site that offers free, standards-based, innovative resources for teaching and learning American history. Three additional maritime history activities will be launched in fall 2009. “Smithsonian’s History Explorer” is accessible at

About the Museum
The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. After a two-year renovation and a dramatic transformation, the museum shines new light on American history, both in Washington and online. To learn more about the museum, check For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).

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Solo Medios 

Melinda Machado


National Museum of American History
Press Office