"American Democracy" Exhibition Opens June 28 at the Smithsonian

National Museum of American History Asks What Happens When a People Decide to Govern Themselves?
June 14, 2017
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Elaborately constructed story clock

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will open a captivating exhibition that examines the bold experiment to create a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” Opening June 28, “American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith” will explore what happens when a people decide to abandon a monarchy and will examine the history of citizen participation, debate and compromise needed to make the ideal of popular sovereignty a reality.

“American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith” is one of the signature exhibitions in a newly transformed wing of the museum’s second floor. Under the theme, The Nation We Build Together, the four exhibitions on this floor will tell the story of America’s founding and future as a country built on the ideals and ideas of freedom and opportunity.

“Democracy is still a work in progress, but it is at the core of our nation’s political, economic, and social life,” said John Gray, the Elizabeth MacMillan Director of the National Museum of American History. “We invite visitors to explore our distinctive American democracy and to participate in creating a more perfect union.”

The exhibition, on display in the Linda and Pete Claussen Hall of Democracy, will comprise 7,235 sq. ft., some 900 objects, six video presentations, five electronic interactives and two touch stations to bring history to life. National treasures on display include Thomas Jefferson’s writing box used to draft the Declaration of Independence; the inkstand Abraham Lincoln used to draft the Emancipation Proclamation; and the iconic red shawl Susan B. Anthony wore while lobbying for woman suffrage along with campaign materials, protest signs, voting machines and the ephemera of American political life. The exhibition explores the challenges and triumphs that generations of Americans encountered as they sought to create an American democracy. 

When they decided to base their society on the sovereignty of the people, Americans faced a set of questions that each generation has grappled with in turn. In this representative democracy, who gets to participate? How to do we encourage participation? Are there ways beyond voting to make our voices heard? What kind of citizenry is needed to support our democracy? The exhibition will present the history of these questions so that visitors can draw their own conclusions and be inspired to see their own role in this ever-changing democracy.

“American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith” is divided into five sections dramatically illustrated with artifacts, graphics and media presentations. The first section sets the scene with “The Great Leap,” which examines the system that the colonists inherited and the issues the founding generation debated to change that world.

The second section, “A Vote, A Voice,” looks at Americans grappling with the expansion and contraction of voting rights as they debated who should have a direct voice in the political process.

In its third section, “The Machinery of Democracy,” the exhibition investigates the informal institutions and activities not spelled out in the Constitution but which make America’s participatory system possible and motivate citizens to join political parties, support candidates, and vote.

“Beyond the Ballot,” explores the ways in which Americans have shaped their country through petitioning, protest and lobbying throughout the country’s history and across the political spectrum.   

“Creating Citizens,” the concluding section, examines the basic questions of: How diverse should the citizenry be? Do we need to share a common national story? and What are the rights and responsibilities of citizens? These questions have shaped the most contested debates in America’s more than 200-year-old political history.

“American Democracy” was made possible by leadership support provided by Linda and Pete Claussen with major funding also provided by the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation and Sue Van; the Theodore Craver Family in memory of Frederick Craver; the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation; The Pew Charitable Trusts; David C. Frederick and Sophia Lynn; History Channel/A+E Networks; Altria Group; Marcia and Frank Carlucci and Peter and Rhondda Grant.

In-depth information about the themes and objects featured in the exhibition, will be available by visiting the website at http://americanhistory.si.edu/democracy or through the full-color companion book, American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith, published by Smithsonian Books. The volume uses the unparalleled artifacts of the Smithsonian's collections and the expertise of the exhibition’s curators to illustrate the vital role democracy has played in the shaping of American history and the American experience.

The National Museum of American History is located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th Streets and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. 

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Valeska Hilbig




Melinda Machado



National Museum of American History
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