At stadiums throughout the U.S. naming rights are sold to rechristen them Petco Park, Staples Center, Wells Fargo Center and other examples of commercialism run rampant. By contrast, many museums (as well as college buildings) bear the names of the wealthy people whose philanthropy helped make them possible (the Getty Center, the new Broad Museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and countless others. In this season when people often give to charities, the Smithsonian, which also has philanthropic origins in the fortune of James Smithson, is highlighting “Giving in America” at the National Museum of American History, both financial efforts and time given by volunteer firemen and others.
The Smithsonian introduced display cases on Tuesday, Dec. 1, that look at how the spirit of giving time and money shaped America. Giving has been a unifying thread in U.S. history from the early days with volunteer militias and collection plates in churches to today’s charity runs and crowdfunding efforts. The museum places volunteer work alongside financial initiatives in the context of the nation’s achievements. Appropriately, gifts from philanthropist David M. Rubenstein and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation helped fund the exhibit.
The Giving in America cases at the American History gallery highlight how generations of wealthy Americans supported museums, libraries, performing arts venues and companies, universities, hospitals and religious institutions. They sought to provide educational opportunities and enduring ways to improve their cities, alma maters, and more.
Artifacts on display include information about 1,600 libraries financed by Andrew Carnegie (not to mention his Music Hall in New York). There is an early edition of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 that was used in October 1891 for the inaugural concerts given by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A student nurse’s cap worn in the 1940s at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing is in the case.
Another feature is a rotating display in D.C. of letters from signers of the Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals to give the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. The current display features letter from David Rockefeller, Warren Buffet, Judy Faulkner and others.
The idea for the initiative grew out of the museum delving into the history of business in America for its recently opened innovation wing, according to Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs David Allison. “The role of philanthropy kept coming up,” he said, but there were space concerns. “It made us think that we should do more on that topic.”
The Smithsonian’s new Giving in America displays are temporary as the museum finishes its renovation. They also were unveiled on Dec. 1 in accordance with the start of a new long-term philanthropy initiative. Eventually, a long-term more inclusive exhibit on philanthropy is slated to be introduced late next year.
In the interim, the D.C. institution is gathering objects to present the full picture of charitable giving in the U.S. “Philanthropy has made a profound difference in defining who we are as individuals, a nation and how the world views us,” said John Gray, director of that Smithsonian. “These objects will help our visitors better understand the collaborative power of giving and how ordinary people contribute to the nation’s well-being.”
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
Smithsonian: National Museum of American History Adds Objects on #GivingTuesday
American History Home: Blog: American Philanthropy: A new Smithsonian initiative
U.S. News & World Report: ‘Giving in America’: New Smithsonian museum initiative explores history of giving in America
Christian Science Monitor: Smithsonian honors the power of giving in American society (+video)
Photo courtesy of National Museum of American History