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The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History presented its “Great Americans” medal to former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell during an evening ceremony Dec. 7. Powell donated to the museum a navy blue jacket he frequently wore during his State Department tenure.
The “Great Americans” program, supported by David M. Rubenstein, a member of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, includes a conversation with the recipient and the presentation of a newly minted museum medal that recognizes lifetime contributions that embody American ideals and ideas.
“Secretary Powell is a soldier and a statesman who represents the fundamental ideals and ideas of America that have distinguished this nation since its founding,” said John Gray, director of the museum. “Democracy, freedom and opportunity are values embodied by Secretary Powell.”
Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants, was born in New York City in 1937. For more than 50 years, Powell has devoted his life to public service, having held senior military and diplomatic positions across four presidential administrations. He served as the 65th U.S. Secretary of State from January 2001 to January 2005. Before that he served 35 years in the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of four-star general and was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993. Powell also served as national security advisor to President Ronald Reagan.
The uniform Powell wore during Operation Desert Storm is on view in the museum’s ‘Price of Freedom: Americans at War” exhibition. The addition of the dark navy blue windbreaker that Powell wore at the State Department and on most of his flights abroad will allow the museum to tell the story of his work on behalf of U.S. foreign policy. The jacket was presented by a vendor in the State Department building who had it embroidered with the title “Secretary of State” and Powell’s last name underneath. The opposite side of the garment features the U.S. State Department seal. Two other objects that were donated are representative of the small gifts Powell’s travel advance team would give out: a tan-and-navy baseball-style cap with the State Department emblem on the front and Powell’s signature on the back and a ceremonial challenge coin in a presentation box.
The museum presented Powell with a medal struck in 1.85 ounces of fine gold in Wisconsin. It features an American eagle with rays of the sun on the obverse or “head’s side” with the words “Great Americans” and “National Museum of American History” struck around the image. The reverse side honors one of the museum’s most important treasures, the Star-Spangled Banner, and includes the mission of the Smithsonian: “For the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” It measures approximately 1 1/2 inches in diameter and was inspired by the rare Double Eagle coins in the museum’s National Numismatic Collection, which were designed by famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens for the $20 gold piece. The medal was made possible by museum board member Jeff Garrett and designed by Michael Guilfoyle, an international designer of coins and medals.
The “Great Americans” award will be presented annually to up to four recipients and includes an interview with the awardee moderated by Rubenstein and the opportunity for the museum to add objects to the national collections. More information is available at: https://americanhistory.si.edu/great-americans.
Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history. It helps people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future. The museum is continuing to renovate its west exhibition wing, developing galleries on democracy and culture. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. For more information, visit http://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.
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