Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Historic Changes for Historic Times at the Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Institution felt the same pains that museums around the world experienced in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and its global shut downs —massive economic loss, sweeping reductions in staff, and an intense burnout as they, and museum professionals across the globe, struggled to adapt to a “new normal.” Fortunately, it appears that we are finally seeing the other side of this pandemic, and the Smithsonian has joined the likes of many others in reopening its doors to the public.

This era in the Smithsonian’s narrative will also be marked by none other than Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon and soon-to-be astronaut. Just days before his historic voyage to space through his rocket company Blue Origin, Bezos made a personal $200 million donation to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, the largest philanthropic donation to the institution since its founding in 1846. The gift will help complete ongoing renovations at the museum, but the majority will go towards the development of a new education center that encourages learning and exploration in STEAM fields. 

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Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is also in the midst of historic change. In 2019, artist Hiroshi Sugimoto’s proposed re-design for the Hirshhorn’s sculpture garden was approved, but not without major backlash. Sugimoto’s design drew heavily from Japanese culture and many felt that this detracted from the original concepts of museum architect Gordon Bunshaft and landscape architect Lester Collins. Though Bunshaft and Collins also used Japanese architecture as in inspiration for their work, the Hirshhorn has a largely Modernist aesthetic, and opposers of Sugimoto’s concept feared that his re-design would clash with this existing aesthetic. Some even called for Collins’s work on the sculpture garden to be included on the National Register of Historic Places. Ultimately, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts has voted to approve Sugimoto’s design, and this change will hopefully bring a new sense of design unity to the Hirshhorn and its sculpture garden.

Render of Sugimoto’s concept for the Hirshhorn Museum’s sculpture garden.

Since it’s founding, the Smithsonian Institution has had an incredible story of creation and change, and it is promising to see the institution continue to follow this narrative even in the wake of a global pandemic.

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A Day in Quincy, MA for The Birthday of John Quincy Adams

At thirteen, I picked up David McCullough’s hefty volume on John Adams and the course of my life changed. A special fascination with early American and United States history was formed in my heart that would, eventually, inspire my decision to pursue History and Museum Studies at Tufts.

John Quincy Adams at 16. He was a boy genius who had already served the new American nation as secretary to the foreign minister to Russia.

As I read, it wasn’t the character of John Adams who most piqued my interest, but those of his four children, who, more keenly than anyone, felt the pains and dealt with the lifelong repercussions of their father’s frequent absences in the name of serving his country. The oldest son, John Quincy Adams — a brilliant, creative, moody, dutiful aspiring poet whose head was often in the clouds — became my special interest.

John Quincy Adams’s stone library. Photo taken on my first trip to Massachusetts when I was 18.

When I was eighteen, a longstanding dream came true when I visited the three historic homes at the Adams National Historical Park. I walked through the halls and across the grounds where young John Adams, then his children, then their children studied, worked, and played. I was enchanted by the beautiful stone library on the Old House property; an elderly John Quincy Adams made his son promise he would build the structure to protect his beloved collection of 8,000 books from fires. I listened to our guide’s exciting rendering of the story and took in the scent of all those carefully preserved old pages.

Then, on Monday, July 12th, 2021, I was able to live another dream. At the United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts, where both Adams presidents worshipped, I attended a wreath-laying ceremony for John Quincy Adams’s birthday. If such longevity was possible for human beings, the eleventh of July would have seen him turn 254.

Such speakers as the Mayor of Quincy, the President of the Quincy City Council, the Minister of the United First Parish Church, and of course representatives from the Adams National Historical Park and the Quincy Historical Society took the podium to speak of Adams’s courage,  and the strong principles that alienated him from political enemies and allies alike, for which in death he has earned substantial respect. They spoke of the courage we have had to employ as a community, as a nation, as human beings this past year. They spoke of the importance of John Quincy Adams’s example in such times as these.

After the ceremony, I went with a knowledgable, passionate church guide and a curious, kindly schoolteacher into the crypt beneath the United First Parish Church, where John Quincy Adams, his wife, and his parents are all buried. It was a bit of a heart-stopping moment for me. I’d longed to see this for much of my life.

JQA’s tomb with the presidential birthday wreath, at the United First Parish Church, a historic site in Quincy. 12 July 2021.

It was cold and stark, except for the American flags resting on the tombs of both men, and the beautiful presidential wreath adorning John Quincy’s for this special day. I placed my hands over his name and reflected.

Like all of us, he was a complex person. He is well-known now for his battle in the House of Representatives for the abolition of slavery in his twilight years, and his successful defense of the Amistad Africans before the Supreme Court at the age of 73. But it had taken him this long to ever speak up for the rights of Black individuals, in a nation he had served almost non-stop since before his fifteenth birthday, having held virtually every political office possible. I thought about the enslaved peoples in this nation as I stood beneath the church.

He came to care about the rights of Native peoples in the United States, but only after doing irreparable damage to the lives of many by approving of and fueling dispossession of lands in his earlier career. I thought about them as I stood beneath the church.

He was not a good father. Rather than break the cycle by recognizing the harsh ways his parents pushed him toward glory, he treated his own sons with even more cruelty. Two out of three of them died tragically, and young. I thought about them, and all the other Adamses who did not meet their family’s standard of greatness and, so, are not buried in this crypt (or remembered by history), as I stood beneath the church.

I walked afterward to Penn’s Hill, the spot in Quincy where John Quincy Adams, a month shy of his eighth birthday, walked with his mother on the night of June 17th, 1775, and watched Charlestown burn while the Battle of Bunker Hill raged. He was haunted for the rest of his long life by the flames and the sound of the guns. Every year, Boston held a celebration to commemorate the courage of the militiamen who fought at Bunker Hill; he never attended a single one.

The Abigail Adams Cairn at Penn’s Hill. 12 July 2021.

I lingered there. You can’t see Boston anymore; Penn’s Hill is surrounded by neighborhoods now, and the fifteen-minute walk there from the little farmhouse where Abigail Adams raised her children is lined with homes and businesses. I thought about courage and principle; I thought about those whom history celebrates and those whom it forgets; I thought about the seven-year-old who held his mother’s hand while he watched the world fall apart across the shoreline — unaware that, two and a half centuries later, people would be tromping through his childhood home, marveling at his stone library, placing their hands on his tomb to think about those he helped, those he ignored, those he hurt.

The farmhouse where John and Abigail Adams raised their brilliant son “Johnny,” his older sister “Nabby,” and his younger brothers “Charley” and “Tommy.” Today, it is a historic house museum.

I thought about the power of history, the power of museums, the power of place and story, to connect us to all those who have come before, so that we can learn from their examples and swear to do better.

The grounds at the Adams National Historical Park are open, and the museums are preparing for a phased reopening after the pandemic. Click here for more information. 

The United First Parish Church, also known as the “Church of the Presidents,” is open again for tours of the sanctuary and the Adams crypt. Click here for more information.

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How Museums are Acknowledging the Fourth of July

Though the holiday weekend is over and most of us have headed back to work, museums around the country have put out plenty of content to keep the Fourth of July celebration going! From blog posts to videos to at-home activities and beyond, check out the following links to explore this country’s past and future through some of the nation’s most beloved museum collections.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Using Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, arguably one of the museum’s most recognizable American artworks, this blog post from the Metropolitan Museum of Art considers how Leutze’s infamous painting helped to shape American iconography and mythology, as well as how also how later artists—particularly Black and Indigenous artists—have interpreted Leutze’s painting to paint a different, more inclusive picture of American history. You can also find more information about Washington Crossing the Delaware through the Met’s online collection!

Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware on December 25, 1776.

The Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian has curated a collection of blog posts that explore a wide range of museum objects from throughout American history, from the portable desk on which Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to this Uncle Sam costume dating from 1956 and beyond. Additionally, the National Museum of African American History and Culture published a fascinating post on Frederick Douglass’s famed 1852 speech “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?” which remains highly relevant and worth a read nearly 170 years after it was first delivered.

Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?” is an important reminder that the struggle for freedom for all has been ongoing since 1776.

The Berkshire Museum

We don’t just need to look to big, national museums for great Independence Day content—the Berkshire Museum right here in Massachusetts has a “Fact or Fiction?” post on their BerkshireMuseum@Home site that explores some key facets of American history through museum objects. Is John Trumbull’s 1818 painting The Declaration of Independence a faithful reproduction of the events of July 4, 1776? What role did women play in the American Revolution? How did the Liberty Bell get its famous crack? Find out the answers to these questions and more here!

In their Fourth of July blog post, the Berkshire Museum reminds us that John Trumbull’s 1818 painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence is a fictionalized vision of the events of July 1776.

The National World War II Museum

Like the Smithsonian, the National World War II Museum in New Orleans took the opportunity to highlight several objects from their collection as they relate to Independence Day. Read more on the museum’s website here!

The USS Constitution Museum

The USS Constitution Museum presented a slate of virtual events throughout the holiday weekend. But just because the live-streamed events are over now doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy the content! Check out stories, videos, at-home activities, and events for all ages in celebration of the Fourth of July on the museum’s website here.

The National Constitution Center

Finally, while Americans have long celebrated Independence Day on July 4th, this blog post from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia poses a fascinating question: should we really be celebrating on July 2nd? As it turns out, while Congress approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, hence the federal holiday we know today, the U.S. technically declared independence from Great Britain two days prior on July 2nd. Read more about the events of July 1776 on the National Constitution Center’s website here!

While fireworks and BBQs are beloved staples of the Fourth of July, the holiday can be a great opportunity to dive into American history, too—and it’s easy to do with the help of museums! Do you know of any other museum content related to Independence Day? Let us know in the comments!

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