Feature Story

Creating the Conversation What It Means to Be American

To document, interpret, and present an inclusive story of the American experience, the Smithsonian will travel the country to start a national conversation.

Music icon Eddie Van Halen demonstrates his innovative musical techniques during the What it Means to Be American event Is Rock ‘n’ Roll All About Reinvention? on February 12, 2015 at the National Museum of American History. During the event, Van Halen and music journalist Denise Quan discussed immigration and invention in Van Halen’s life and career. Photo by Abram Landes.

In the history of America, everyone originally came from somewhere else.

Some traveled across the Bering Strait as the ice receded. Some fled wars, persecution, or hardship, individually or in larger waves of immigration. They might have been explorers and adventurers, eager to participate in the grand American experiment and secure a better life. Or they may have had no choice, brought in on slave ships, as indentured servants, or annexed as part of America’s expansion.  

Some may have arrived many generations ago, and some will arrive tomorrow. Whatever the timing, each individual and group plays an important role in creating America.

To document, interpret, and present an inclusive story of this American experience, the Smithsonian plans to embark on a journey of its own.

Starting a national conversation

Megan Smith is an educator at the National Museum of American History and a member of the Consortia-supported Our American Journey team, the Smithsonian’s Immigration and Migration Initiative. 

“About a year and a half ago, we started thinking about what a national conversation on American identity would look like, and how we could reach out beyond our walls to a national, and increasingly global, audience,” says Smith. “We wanted to use technology to complement what we have always thought of as the quintessential Smithsonian experience—connecting with the real people who are doing the scholarship or living the history, and the real objects that make their stories tangible.”

In many ways, the strengths of the Smithsonian are the breadth of its collections and experience, and its ability as a convener to create community. “We were looking at best practices of other organizations that were doing a great job creating community, bringing people together, and engaging them with ideas and with objects, and realized that Zócalo Public Square in Los Angeles was doing some really great work.”                   

The Museum brought Gregory Rodriguez, Publisher and Founder of Zócalo Public Square, to the Smithsonian as a Goldman Sachs fellow to help think broadly about a national conversation that would reach out and bring people together around ideas. The collaboration resulted in an upcoming series of events and plans for a robust website.

In January 2014, a series of public events were launched to ask the important question, what does it mean to be American? Issues that go to the heart of the question—citizenship, voting rights, immigration, civil rights, and others—will be debated in the context of history. Twenty-seven events in nine cities across the country will feature live programming, widely syndicated journalism, and digital social interactivity to reach even more people. Publishing this programming on the website will rely on Zócalo Public Square’s deep journalistic experience and editorial expertise.

“We’re shaping the What it Means to Be American website to expand on issues and ideas from the events,” says Smith. “The programs will be put up on the site so that people who aren’t present can watch them and engage. On the site, visitors will be surrounded by other topically related articles, first-person stories, and essays by scholars, historians, politicians, and other people that we want to engage in this topic.”

What It Means to Be American website

The website employs a “story collection tool” that will allow individuals to upload their own personal or family stories and experiences, some of which will then be published on the site. It will, in fact, be crowdsourcing curatable content directly from a wide range of the population.

The site features content from the first two programs. The inaugural event, held at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, had Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Girl Scouts USA CEO Anna Maria Chavez discussing “The Women of the West.” The second event, held at the National Museum of American History, was a lively evening with Eddie Van Halen discussing immigration, experimentation, and innovation as his American story. 

The entire What It Means to Be American project will require about $2.5 million in funds. “We were very excited to receive a generous $300,000 award from the Carnegie Corporation of New York that will allow us to get the website up and running, hold our first two programs in D.C. and L.A., and really show what we’re trying to achieve. I think it’s going to be tremendously valuable kickoff funding.” The program has also received funding from the Daniel K. Inouye Fund­­­ for programming in Honolulu. Additional support is being sought to take the public programming out to Denver, Phoenix, Houston, Chicago, Miami, and Atlanta.

“Through these public events, we provide a space for people in communities across the country and online to come together and have a chance to talk about issues in a thoughtful way that’s wrapped in history,” explains Smith. “We feel that the story of America and the story of Americans can provide people with a rich understanding and a deep connection to the past that will help them consider their own lives and what’s going on in them today.”

“In terms of this program, we want to nurture a culture of intellectual engagement that says it’s OK to come with different ideas and to talk about big ideas together, and it’s OK to disagree,” says Smith. “That coming together and being exposed to different ideas is really what has driven our dynamic society.”

During the past several years, the Smithsonian has been experimenting with different ways of collecting stories and moving from one-way to two-way communication with the public. “I think the museum world in general has been looking at how we make this a two-way conversation so that our audience is talking to us, informing us,” Smith explains. “That involves acknowledging our expertise, while also acknowledging the experience and knowledge that our audience brings to the table.”

The information gathered by the project will be used in multiple ways. The first will be to contribute to the website content and use Zócalo Public Square’s syndication partnerships with media companies to widely distribute that content through other news and media sources.

“We definitely hope that one of the outcomes will be a stronger sense that the Smithsonian represents all of America,” says Smith, “and that we’re interested in and want to engage with audiences across the country.”

At the January 2015 What It Means to be American event The Women of the West, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Girl Scouts USA CEO Anna Maria Chávez discuss with Sacramento Bee publisher Cheryl Dell what it means to be a woman in the American West, how they blazed paths in their chosen professions, and what they forsee for women in America. Photo by Felipe Ruiz-Acosta

Many Voices, One Nation

The project will also be used to inform two major new permanent exhibitions in development for the second floor of the National Museum of American History’s west wing, currently under renovation.

Many Voices, One Nation will be a permanent exhibition about how American culture has been created from these dynamic interactions between people from all over the world. On the other side of the second floor will be American Democracy: The Great Leap of Faith, the story of how America’s history of democratic traditions has shaped the country and its society. Between the two will be Liberty Square, an open space for public programming.

“The point of both of those exhibitions is that America is still in progress,” says Smith. “We really want people today to understand that their decisions have an effect on the America of tomorrow. So, through these programs we also hope to get a national exposure to our audience, which will help us understand their perspective on these big issues. Then we can bring those perspectives to the exhibition development.”

Another advantage of the public events will be the opportunity to test out elements of the exhibition design. “As we go across the country,” says Smith, “we’re going to take elements of the exhibits that we can prototype to our different audiences so that we can get a national perspective on how people are connecting with our big ideas, and if we’re representing what feels like the right story to them. We can do a lot of research when we’re out there, and we’re very excited about that.”

“The Consortia has provided an amazing amount of guidance and also very practical help on some of our grant writing and foundation applications for What it Means to Be American,” says Smith. “Overall Consortia support for the Our American Journey initiative has enabled people to work on the project. Staff time and travel money that have been paid by the Consortia has been really essential.”

“Consortia support has been the match that lit the fuse, if you will, letting us actually do the work,” says Smith. “And then they’ve also just been incredible cheerleaders and boosters and emotional and moral support, as well. You can’t put a dollar amount on real support.”

Partners in the Our American Journey initiative and the What It Means to Be American series are the National Museum of American History, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, National Museum of the American Indian, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Latino Center, and Smithsonian Affiliations