Smithsonian museums should use budget to tell unheard stories

One of the most memorable parts of my freshman year was visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture for my University Writing course. My class visited the top floors dedicated to sports, music and film, among other industries, and I was moved by the way the museum illustrated how black Americans have pushed every sector of our society forward.

Another recent exhibit, “The REDress Project,” opened this month at the National Museum of the American Indian to showcase a set of red dresses that draw attention to gendered and racialized assaults on Native women.

This installation comes after the National Portrait Gallery added 28 portraits of influential American figures to their permanent collection at the end of last year, featuring a diverse group of individuals including fourteen-time MLB All-Star Alex Rodriguez and astronomer Edwin Hubble.

Wandering through the halls of these free museums, students have the opportunity to uncover information that can be downplayed in the classroom. Students at GW and other D.C. institutions have the unique opportunity to learn outside the classroom at some of the best museums in the world, and the Smithsonian Institute should continue to push their resources toward sharing untold stories through exhibits.

The Smithsonian Institute requested a $978 million budget from the federal government for 2020. Out of the requested budget, $219 million will be allocated for new exhibits and renovations. When the organization looks ahead and makes plans to use that money to bring new works to the District, it should prioritize diversity and focus on updates that highlight underrepresented groups so visitors can further learn about American figures and experiences that have not been represented in their textbooks.

The Smithsonian plans to use the money from the facilities capital – $219 million from the overall budget – for renovation projects at four institutions, the National Air and Space Museum, National Zoo, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Smithsonian Institution Building. Some of the projects for these buildings, including a seven-year renovation at the Air and Space Museum, are directly related to updating exhibit content. As the Smithsonian Institute decides how to spend their money on the Air and Space Museum project, they should consider how their exhibits can better reflect the diversity of those who have advanced aviation and space technology.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum has multiple exhibits dedicated to the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union, but none of them feature the contributions of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan or Mary Jackson, who helped send astronaut John Glenn to space through their work at NASA and were featured in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures.” All three women were responsible for performing important mathematical equations and calculations by hand. The Air and Space Museum should showcase these women and others like them because of their contributions to space technology that often go underappreciated.

The Air and Space Museum is not the only Smithsonian that could better reflect the contributions of diverse individuals. Only five of the 70 pieces of featured artwork in the Sculpture Garden at the Hirschhorn Museum were created by female artists. The Sculpture Garden does a great job highlighting artists of a diverse array of nationalities for the most part, but of the five women, only Yoko Ono – the multimedia artist and former wife of The Beatles’ John Lennon – was born in a non-western country. This is not to say that Yoko Ono does not deserve to be featured in the Sculpture Garden because of her fame, but there are plenty of lesser-known female artists from other countries whose work deserves to be featured alongside hers.

When using the 2020 budget to make updates and create new exhibits, the Smithsonian Institute should examine the important – yet often ignored – voices who have advanced the country and continue the work they have already done to continue to shine a light on these figures.

Everyone from tourists to local students should be able to understand the impact of diverse voices when they visit a Smithsonian museum, regardless of which location they choose to explore.

Natalie Prieb, a junior majoring in English and creative writing, is a Hatchet columnist.

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