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Smithsonian's Museum on Main Street Program Explores Importance of Work in American Life
In 1946, a Federal agency, the Solid Fuels Administration for War, hired noted photographer Russell Lee to photograph living and working conditions in American coal mining communities around the country. Photo: Russell Lee.
WASHINGTON, DC.- Work and the workplace have gone through enormous changes between the mid-19th century, when 60 percent of Americans made their living as farmers, and the early 21st century. The newest traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street (MoMS) program, “The Way We Worked,” celebrates the history of work in America. It tells the stories of how hard-working Americans of every ethnicity, class, gender and age power the nation.

Five copies of the exhibition will begin simultaneous tours of Idaho, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee and West Virginia in September and October 2011. Complete tour information is available online at www.museumonmainstreet.org. “The Way We Worked” was created by the National Archives and is organized for travel by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). MoMS is a partnership of SITES and state humanities councils.

“The work that each of us does every day speaks volumes about who we are as individuals, as communities and as a country,” said Anna R. Cohn, director of SITES. “We all have our own work journeys, and each one of these jobs reflects the various kinds of work that has and continues to build and strengthen the nation.”

“The Way We Worked” brings to light the who, what, where, why and how of Americans at work. It explores the places Americans worked, from farms to factories and mines to restaurants, as well as in homes. It examines not only the effects of technology and automation, but also how workers striving for better working conditions, wages and hours, and an end to racial and gender discrimination, changed America’s work history. The exhibition illustrates how America’s workforce is as diverse as the nation itself. Dreams of new jobs and opportunities led millions to America’s shores. “The Way We Worked” provides some answers to why people work—from simply paying the bills to pursuing a calling, serving the country and giving back to the community. It explores what work tells people about each other. Whole communities may become known by the work that happens there, like Idaho’s Silver Valley with its strong mining heritage.

“The Way We Worked” is accompanied by a cell-phone tour that allows visitors to access additional details provided by exhibition curator, Bruce Bustard, senior curator for the National Archives. Callers will also be able to listen to featured stories from each of the five participating states. MoMS worked with the National Archives and partnered with host state humanities councils to develop content for the cell-phone tour.

The photos featured in the exhibition come from the vast collection of the National Archives, which is home to thousands of photos of work and workplaces taken by government agencies. The images featured in “The Way We Worked,” though possibly taken merely for purposes of record keeping, often reveal much more about how social forces such as immigration, gender, ethnicity, class and technology transformed the workforce.

The MoMS program serves museums, libraries and historical societies in rural areas, where one-fifth of all Americans live. The Smithsonian’s partnership with state humanities councils is a creative response to the challenge faced by these rural museums to enhance their cultural legacies. Venues supplement the exhibitions with objects, stories and programs that celebrate local heritage and inspire community pride. Major funding for MoMSis provided by the U.S. Congress.

State humanities councils located in each state and U.S. territory support community-based humanities programs that highlight such topics as local history, literature and cultural traditions.





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