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Grad Students Build Smithsonian Pre-exhibit Web Site

By Adrienne Frank

National Museum of American History

The Smithsonian’s American Enterprise exhibit presented an enterprising opportunity for two College of Arts and Sciences grad students. The site they built will launch this winter.

In August, the National Museum of American History hired Will Tchakirides, a public history master’s student, and Jordan Grant, a doctoral candidate in U.S. history, to create a pre-exhibition Web site — a new trend at museums and the first for the Smithsonian.

On the site, visitors can interact with curators and other museum staff on blogs and message boards to stay abreast of the exhibit’s progress over the next four years. For example, Peter Liebhold, chair of the Division of Work and Industry at the museum, blogged about a trip to the Farm Progress Show in Iowa, where he learned more about equipment and farm life, while Nancy Davis, curator in the Division of Home and Community Life, wrote about the history of knockoffs in America.

Visitors can watch video, browse items for the collection, and learn what books curators and museum staff are reading.

“We wanted to start a conversation. In the past, we could only do that through focus groups and surveys, but the Web opens up a range of new possibilities,” said Kathy Franz, American Enterprise curator and public history professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. “We want to hear what people know about history and business; it helps us sharpen our messages.”

Grant added, “It’s the main principle of public history: history is good for the public, and the public is good for history. Historians write better when they write not for other historians but for a broad audience.

“Museums are more than four walls with stuff inside,” he continued. “By giving people digital access to the collections, the Smithsonian is inviting people to see and experience things they otherwise never would.”

American Enterprise is slated to open in 2014.