‘The First Ladies’ exhibit should showcase more than gowns

“The First Ladies” exhibit has been one of my favorite exhibits at the National Museum of American History since the first time I visited. I’ve always had a soft spot for it because I love fashion and the first ladies, and I find it fascinating to observe how style has evolved. Despite the draws of “The First Ladies,” however, it’s not right that the exhibit provides little information about who these women were beyond their stylistic preferences in fashion and china sets.

I recently visited “The First Ladies” – which is actually the tenth version of the attraction since its debut at the Smithsonian in 1914 – when I went to the museum to research “The American Presidency” exhibit for one of my classes. Since the exhibits are next to each other, I decided to walk through “The First Ladies” while I was there. I always enjoyed going to this exhibit, and this time was no exception, but I definitely left thinking about how “The First Ladies” hasn’t really changed since I first saw it when I was 11 years old. Permanent exhibits don’t go through major changes often, but in 2017, an exhibit about the first ladies should put more emphasis on the real contributions that these women made to their country. With the exception of a small part of the exhibit called “Changing Times, Changing First Ladies” – which highlights some of the political and philanthropic contributions made by Dolley Madison, Mary Todd Lincoln, Edith Roosevelt and Lady Bird Johnson – the exhibit doesn’t place much of an emphasis on how first ladies have used their positions to improve American life.

Even though the addition of “Changing Times, Changing First Ladies” in 2011 was a nice improvement, it only features the work of four first ladies, while dozens of others – including Hillary Clinton, a major party’s presidential candidate in her own right – are only represented by their gowns and china sets. The Smithsonian should update the exhibit to represent each first lady’s passions and achievements – not just their fashion choices – because first ladies are more than the gowns they wear. Everyone, especially young girls, should remember that message long after visiting the museum.

Now is an opportune time to make changes to “The First Ladies” because it’s generally only modified when a new president takes office. As “The First Ladies” is updated to include First Lady Melania Trump’s inaugural ball gown at some point in the near future, curators should consider making some content adjustments to the exhibit as well.

But the reason that this renovation is necessary doesn’t only have to do with the first ladies whose resumes are as prestigious as Hillary Clinton’s. Lesser known first ladies like Helen Taft, who advocated for women’s suffrage, safety standards in factories and arranged the planting of 3,000 cherry blossom trees around the Tidal Basin, deserve to be highlighted as well. I’m not arguing that every first lady who’s featured in the exhibit has impacted American history the way that Eleanor Roosevelt has – but just because some first ladies have made smaller impacts doesn’t mean their work isn’t worth commending.

This exhibit should be about celebrating the first ladies who positively helped their country, regardless of the manner and degree to which they did it. An exhibit titled “The First Ladies” should showcase who these women were and what they accomplished, in addition to the gowns they wore.

Natalie Prieb, a freshman majoring in English, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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