But there’s another program for those who want to take part in history, performed in a small theater tucked away from the crowds.
The “Time Trials of Benedict Arnold,” which premiered in December, invites the audience to speak directly with the Revolutionary War general and decide whether he should be remembered for his courage in the Continental Army or his eventual traitorous attempt to hand West Point over to the British. The performance is more discussion-oriented than the sit-in program and is part of a new series where visitors will meet controversial historical figures and compare their actions with their legacies.
According to Wilson, the idea for the series came from a debate that started on the museum’s Facebook page over whether Stonewall Jackson is a role model for today’s youth. The discussion began after the museum made a routine “today in history” post noting the day that the Confederate general was killed in battle.
“We thought looking at people like that and saying, let’s start a discussion about how we feel these individuals should be remembered ... is ultimately debating and discussing what our history means and says about us today,” Wilson said. The museum is planning to next present John Brown, the abolitionist who famously led an attack on the arsenal in Harpers Ferry, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
Since reopening in late 2008, the National Museum of American History has had more than 378,000 people attend its theater programs, put on nearly 4,000 performances and produced 11 shows. Past programs included a theatrical presentation of letters from American soldiers at war to their loved ones and another that introduced visitors to Mary Pickersgill, the seamstress who sewed the Star-Spangled Banner, and invited them to help assemble her flag.
Although only two shows are currently being offered, the museum will increase its programming in the spring when large school groups typically visit. Wilson said staff is also working to secure new funding to create a character of Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian, to “be for us like Thomas Jefferson is for Colonial Williamsburg or George Washington is for Mount Vernon.”
“As the nation’s museum, we have the power to bring groups of people together and talk about our shared history,” Wilson said. “Right now we’ve got a good base to build upon, and I hope, in the next few years, to grow.”
Theater performances are typically offered on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. There is no charge to attend the programs, and no tickets are required. For additional information, visit americanhistory.si.edu/events.