If men were angels, wrote James Madison, no government would be necessary. To which I would add: If schools were perfect, no museums would be necessary. Regrettably, our educational system is less than perfect, and museums play a crucial role in the education of the communities they serve.
As you read this, construction continues on the Center for the American Dream, a new concept of what a museum can be. Located on Pennsylvania Avenue across from the White House where Madison served as America’s fourth President, the Center will re-think the visitor experience and its impact on individual learning and societal perspectives. In fact, it won’t be a museum at all. Visitors – both online and in person – will experience meaningful, surprising, and authentic ways to approach information utilizing technologies and collections to bring narratives to life in groundbreaking ways.
Where, when and how learning occurs is shifting in American society, and in many other parts of the world. Information technology has an overwhelming influence on the lives of people young and old, and is reshaping ideas about how we are taught. Moreover, changes in schooling lead to narrower curricula highly focused on assessment, workforce development, and preparation for tertiary education. Given these changes, Americans increasingly rely on informal opportunities to augment education—whether in early childhood, as a supplement to primary and secondary education, or throughout one’s career.
Museums are vital educational institutions providing content and programming that cultivates a common humanity. They champion an exchange of ideas and enrichment of intellect. How will the role of museums in society evolve to harness new technologies and reach new audiences? To what extent can museums affect public discourse and help shape the future? The Center for the American Dream seeks just such a re-envisioning of what a museum can be by re-thinking content delivery and visitor experience.
As James Truslow Adams wrote in The Epic of America (1931), “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” Truslow went on to write, “It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
The Center’s focus is on four essential tenets that underpin the American Dream for all: education, health, entrepreneurial spirit and access to the capital and understanding of financial markets necessary to challenge the status quo. Visitors will gain an appreciation for the educators, entrepreneurs, scientists, leaders, financers, and medical researchers who work to change the world for the better. Imagine entering a real-life “holodeck” with an immersive media environment that allows visitors to engage with different virtual or augmented reality experiences. Interactive exhibits will connect visitors with professionals making tangible change in our world. For example, guests will be able to choose their favorite leaders with whom they want to “converse” from a bank of thousands of interviews. These stories of aspiration, obstacles and achievement will form the heart of the Center, conveying the power and potential of the American Dream to individuals and for society.
A special focus of the Center will be the young, whose dreams for the future are the most important to awaken. As a child growing up on a farm in rural Virginia, Francis Collins, MD, PhD, had plans to be a truck driver. A Chemistry teacher encouraged an interest in science. Today, Dr. Collins is Director of the National Institutes of Health. How can tomorrow’s innovators gain the vision to embark on their own journey of discovery? Museums are a vital resource for youth, providing inventive programming and access to information that will educate and inspire. Similarly, lifelong learners are self-directed pursuers of knowledge and museums can and should play a crucial role in renewing and inspiring ambition for all ages.
In the words of Jimmy Stewart, who portrayed George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, “The American Dream is about freedom and its fruits. It is about opportunity, not just for those lucky enough to be born gripping that silver spoon, but opportunity for all. It’s the chance to start with nothing but an idea, and with hard work, to see it happen.” That drive to innovate and create, to dream and achieve, to take risks and learn from failures are central to the concept of the American Dream. The Center will make this learning accessible, engaging, and inspiring for visitors from around the world—and in doing so foster a new archetype for museum-based learning for the 21st century.