By MARSHA MERCER
If you fear for America’s future, do yourself a favor and visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington.
I hear you -- you’ve already seen the Star Spangled Banner, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Julia Child’s kitchen and the first ladies’ gowns. Great!
To restore your faith in the future, though, walk downstairs to the new Innovation Wing on the first floor. Opened July 1, the 45,000-square-foot space houses 12 exhibitions that explore American invention, creativity and business.
The new exhibitions will make you proud of American ingenuity in solving the world’s problems big and small with such inventions as the light bulb, telegraph, the button stitch machine, the Apple 1 computer, hip-hop, Weight Watchers and Technicolor.
What will renew your hopefulness for the future – as it did mine on a visit over the July 4th weekend -- is something the museum’s talented professionals can’t curate: enthusiasm.
Visitors of all ages, but especially children, mostly enjoy themselves as they tour the exhibits. One area – the Draper Spark!Lab – invites kids six to 12 to explore things that roll, from rolling pins to skateboards, and make their own creations.
At times, the exhibits teach by shining a light on the dark parts of our past. A display about the Business of Slavery in the American Enterprise exhibition features the statue of a family of three—husband, wife and their son – standing on a base that is splitting apart to represent the rending of families by the slave trade.
The Object Project exhibition -- “everyday things that changed everything” -- encourages visitors to walk around and often touch inventions ranging from the refrigerator and other household items to bicycles and ready-to-wear clothes. In so doing, we are reminded that today’s shiniest new thing one day will be quaintly old fashioned.
A woman and her teenage daughter paused before a black, candlestick telephone that looked like something from Downton Abbey.
Mom explained that someone would lift the separate earpiece to the ear and talk into the round mouthpiece at the top. So far, so good.
“It’s a dial phone,” Mom said.
The teen expertly tapped her fingertips on the numbers.
“No, you have to dial it,” Mom said, demonstrating.
The girl gingerly extended an index finger into a slot but quickly pulled back. Laughing, she tried again. Eureka! She dialed a phone. Hello, 20th century?
Nearby was a customized interactive version of the old TV game show, “The Price is Right,” in which visitors compete by guessing the total cost of three items from selected years.
The Object Project also shows us that extravagance in America is nothing new. Tiffany & Co. in 1896 customized a bicycle with nickel- and gold-plating, diamonds and emeralds. It bears the initials in gold of the owner, Mrs. M.N. Wiley of Montgomery, Ala.
That bicycle is in a glass-fronted case, but the days are gone of museums keeping all the good stuff behind glass. The Innovation Wing has many hands-on exhibits. Where else can you learn turntable scratch like a hip-hop DJ in the 1970s – thanks to video tutorials from greats of the genre?
Hip-hop was born in the Bronx, N.Y., and the Bronx is one of six creative hotspots featured in the Places of Invention exhibition. Others are Hartford, Conn., where precision manufacturing got its start in the late 1800s; Hollywood, where Technicolor ushered in the movies’ Golden Age in the 1930s; Minneapolis-St. Paul, which advanced cardiac care in the 1950s; Silicon Valley, Calif., home of the personal computer in the 1970s and ‘80s, and Fort Collins, Colo., a college town that fosters clean energy innovations.
Conventional wisdom holds that we Americans are blasé and world weary, but I’m not so sure. I lost track of how often people said: “Wow!” “I’ve never seen anything like that!” and “Look at this!”
The American history museum welcomes four million visitors a year. When people flock to the new Innovation Wing, they renew their gusto.
And they can impress their children with their knowledge of ancient times. One dad pointed out a boom box and said: “People used to carry those on their shoulders.”
His little boy gazed doubtfully at the huge contraption and had a question. “Why?”
©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.