Yesterday, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History unveiled a long-term Philanthropy Initiative, which includes a new display, “Giving in America,” and a collections effort that “represents Americans’ gifts of time, talent, expertise and money.” They also held their first annual philanthropy symposium, “The Power of Giving: Philanthropy’s Impact on American Life” featuring eminences such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and David Rockefeller.
The full long-term exhibit will open next year, on Giving Tuesday. But there is a preview display now on view, with artifacts from the turn of the last century Gilded Age as well as from today.
According to an inaugural blog post from David Allison, one of the initiative’s curators who previously curated the museum’s new American Enterprise exhibition, the idea for a focus on philanthropy stemmed from a consideration of “how capitalism works within our democracy” and “why Americans become motivated to give back to support the common good.” Visitors can see, among other artifacts, a register book showing the 1,600 libraries financed by Andrew Carnegie and original copies of the Giving Pledge letters from signatories.
This is an important development in the public history of philanthropy and it raises a host of questions: to what extent will voices critical of philanthropy be included in the exhibition (Allison gestures mildly at this tradition when he remarks that “Carnegie’s perspective on the responsibilities of the very wealthy was controversial in America then and remains so today”)?; to what extent will be exhibition’s treatment of contemporary philanthropy be shaped–perhaps unconsciously–by some of its generous benefactors, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and David Rubinstein? What sorts of regional, ethnic and religious traditions will be represented? How will the traditions of mass giving and large-scale philanthropy be balanced?
The museum is now actively “seeking philanthropy-related artifacts and documents to add to our permanent collections.” But we wanted to throw the question to our readers: what artifacts do you think the Smithsonian should highlight to tell the story of philanthropy in the United States? Feel free to write in with your suggestions.