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Washington's Popular Museum of American History Criticized for Disorganization - 2002-05-31

The Smithsonian's Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. is the third most visited museum in the world. But as popular as the museum is…it's a bit difficult for tourists to find their way around in it. Experts say there's just too much stuff in the museum and that many of the exhibits aren't organized… and don't challenge visitors to think.

One of America's busiest museums, is looking to give itself a face lift.

Last year, more than five million people wandered through the vast and colorful exhibition halls of the Smithsonian Institute's Museum of American History. Most of the people who come to the museum every year are American and many of them hope to gain an understanding of their own, national identity, by considering the nation's past. But Jeff Custer, who traveled nearly 200 kilometers from his home in Pennsylvania to visit the museum, says he's not sure the museum gave him a better understanding of what it is to be an American. In fact, John Custer's not really sure what he learned from his visit.

"It's a beautiful museum," he says, "but it's very confusing and you kind of wander around, wonder what you ought to do, and there's so much and you don't know... there's no prioritizing, there's no real understanding of, you know, what direction to take," he adds. "And it seems like you could spend forever and after you left, you wonder if you saw what you should have seen." The problem, says Mr.Custer, is that the museum's halls are too vast and too colorful. As soon as visitors walk into the building, they're assaulted by a sprawling exhibit about the history of plastic that includes more than 3,000 items. Visitors have virtually no opportunity to familiarize themselves with the museum's layout and there's also no place for them to go, to get a feeling for the basic chronology of America's past. That's why the Smithsonian Institute asked a panel of experts to evaluate the museum's exhibits and recommend some changes. That panel has recently come out with its report. As she strolls through the main exhibition hall with a critical eye, Martha Morris, Deputy Director of the museum, says the lack of any chronological organization is one of the museum's biggest flaws.

"Now here's an 'Oh wow!' item....Don Garlit's Dragster, which is a wonderful, record-setting race car," she explains. "But then you walk around and what do you look at next? there's an exhibit about the history of time. And then there's something on the industrial revolution and then we have the railroad hall. I mean, all of this needs to be knit together in a much more effective way for the visitor."

Dr. Morris says the museum has gotten cluttered in the 40 years since it first opened. She says new exhibits have just cropped up wherever directors could find the space…and there hasn't always been an attempt to connect exhibits to one another…chronologically or thematically.

"Probably as you know, the history of any organization, when new leadership comes in and new staff come along, they have new ideas that they would like to place within the museum," she says. "So new exhibits have grown up over the years and what has been lacking really, is an overall guiding vision for the entire facility."

To no one's surprise, the historians and museum curators who evaluated the exhibits found the museum is not very "user friendly". Their report recommends many artifacts currently on display be placed in storage, so exhibits won't be so cluttered and visitors will be free to concentrate on some of the most historically significant items. But the report also recommends the museum take a broader, more modern approach to certain events. In particular, the report points to the fact that the Civil War has always been treated as a military affair, with an emphasis on the military technology of the age. Martha Morris says the commission would like the museum to show visitors how families and businesses were affected by the war, too.

"So you may have a story about war, but the war is also going to be told in the context of what was going on on the homefront, and what some of the industrial impacts were and things like that," she explains. "So it's not simply about battles. It's going to be a much broader story. And that is the way that we'd like to approach most of the topics that we're doing here on our exhibition floors."

Dr. Morris isn't sure at this point how, exactly, the museum would convey the so-called "social history" of the Civil War. But she says a lot of good research has already been done on that history, and it's just a matter of coming up with the talent and the funding to design a new exhibit. The museum's directors will be working with an architect later this year to expand the museum's space and move some of the existing exhibits around. Dr. Morris says the directors will also be working with professional fundraisers, because all of the recommendations made by the commission cost money and the museum can't rely on ticket sales, since admission has always been free.