The Smithsonian Institution’s new Museum on Main Street exhibit is a vibrant, interactive journey through our political DNA

July 1776: The American colonists – after years of dissension, boycotts and finally battles – proclaimed their freedom from Britain with the Declaration of Independence. Seven years lat-er, they sealed their freedom when the American Revolutionary War ended in victory.

The future was now truly theirs to create – and that would require unceasing dialogue.

In the summer of 1787, our nation’s founders gathered in Philadelphia to craft the frame-work for our fledgling government, the U.S. Constitution.

Created and later ratified through debate, that document has been sparking vigorous discus-sion ever since. It’s what founder Alexander Hamilton called the “great national discussion,” and it’s been carrying on for almost 250 years.

“The Manner in Which the American Colonies Declared Themselves Independant [sic],” London, around 1783
“The Manner in Which the American Colonies Declared Themselves Independant [sic],” Lon-don, around 1783

It’s that discourse – often enlightening, at times raucous, always essential – that’s at the heart of living in a democracy governed “by the people.”

And it’s the animating force behind “Voices and Votes: Democracy in America,” the latest offering of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Main Street (MoMS) in collaboration with state humanities councils nationwide, including Florida Humanities.

In 650 square feet, visitors will experience a “you are there” adventure of U.S.political history through displays of artifacts, drawings, photos, videos, multimedia quizzes, presentations and interactive kiosks. The story unfolds from the early days of the American colonies to today, from the Boston Tea Party to the civil rights era and various marches on Washington.

Throughout, visitors will be challenged to ask questions and ponder the ideas and values behind the events, including the concept of democracy itself.

Now in its 25th year of bringing Smithsonian-quality programs to America’s smaller cities and rural towns, MoMS’ latest exhibit debuts in a year that will see a presidential election and the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote.

It will be a year when the importance of “voices and votes” will be on full display.

“Democracy requires participation – that’s the underlying theme of the exhibit,” says Carol Harsh, associate director for Museum on Main Street and Community Engagement, Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. “Participation is so essential. People need to make their voices heard for democracy to evolve.”

Four duplicate exhibits will tour the country over the next six years. The five-stop tour of Florida, one of the first in the country, begins in April in Tallahassee, then Gainesville, the Newtown community in Sarasota, Bartow, and the Little Haiti neighborhood in Miami.

It is inspired by “American Democracy, A Great Leap of Faith,” the permanent exhibit at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. that opened in 2017.

“Curator emeritus Harry Rubenstein, who curated the first MoMS exhibit 25 years ago, thought this would make the perfect MoMS exhibit – very powerful,” says Harsh. “Harry talks about democracy as a group of people agreeing to govern with people they don’t know, perhaps disagree with and maybe don’t like.”

Hence, says Harsh, the importance of civic education and civil dialogue.

“Woven throughout this exhibit are questions like ‘What does it mean to be a American?  What does it mean to be a citizen?,’” says Harsh. “ ‘Who gets to decide? Who gets to vote? How do we engage with our government? What are the rights and responsibilities of citizenship?’ There’s so much misunderstanding.”

When state humanities councils around the country met with MoMs representatives about the  exhibit, “we talked a lot about how people take for granted the idea of democracy as a system of government, period,” says Alex Buell, program coordinator at Florida Humanities.

“But when the framers were deciding what kind of system to build, the idea that normal people could govern themselves, that notion had not existed in the world. There were only kings and nobility. The title of president did not exist. A few of the founding fathers thought they would call this person king. They invented the title of president because they wanted to get away from the monarchy.”

The timing and theme, says Tiffany Baker, museum director of Tallahasse’s Florida Historic Capitol Museum, complements the mission of her museum, which interprets the history of the state’s political process and “helps people understand why Florida’s government functions in the way that it does.”  The Florida tour begins there in April (Note: due to COVID-19 the schedule has changed, see right).

Voices and Votes: Democracy in America logo

Tour Schedule

Aug 15 – Oct 10, 2020
Betty J. Johnson North Sarasota Library
2801 Newtown Boulevard, Sarasota

Oct 17 – Dec 12, 2020
Polk County History Center
100 East Main Street, Bartow

Dec 19, 2020 – Feb 6, 2021
Haitian Heritage Museum
4141 NE 2nd Ave. #105C, Miami

Feb 13 – Mar 27, 2021
Florida Historic Capitol
400 S. Monroe Street, Tallahassee

“It’s a banner year, with the presidential election in 2020. It’s also the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment and the 20th anniversary of the 2000 election, in which Florida played such an important part,” says Baker.

And Florida, with its third highest number of electoral votes (tied with New York), its close elections, and its frequent challenges around ballot design, always plays a pivotal role in the national political drama.

“The Historic Capitol Museum’s mission is to connect people with political institutions,  so we’re trying to educate people about civic processes all the time –  voting, running for office, protesting, engaging in debate, how to state your case in a public forum.”

And the Tallahassee museum’s long-term exhibits includes artifacts of previous elections referenced in the MoMS exhibit, such as the notorious “butterfly ballot” from the presidential election of 2000.

In Bartow, the Polk County History Center was already planning a year-long celebration of voting rights.

“A Woman Living Here Has Registered to Vote,” window sign for a home, 1919. Courtesy of National Museum of American History
“A Woman Living Here Has Registered to Vote,” window sign for a home, 1919. Courtesy of National Museum of American History

“This coming year we will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, giving women suffrage,” says Myrtice Young, historic preservation manager.

“We developed a coalition of around 15 local partners to talk about what we could do to commemorate it.  We’ll have an exhibit, we’ll host a play about the trial of (suffragist) Susan B. Anthony. So here comes the wonderful news about the MoMS exhibit and it is a perfect tie-in to the commemoration. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to have the resources of the Smithsonian and Florida Humanities.

At the Betty J. Johnson North Sarasota Public Library, manager Erin Clay has high hopes for the exhibit, which will open there in August.

“We hope people will leave with a better understanding of democratic history and the rights and responsibilities of citizens living in a democracy,” says Clay.

“Of course we want residents to feel inspired and register to vote while they are here. Above all, we want people to understand the art of constructive conversation and listening as it relates to enacting change.”

Eveline Pierre is executive director of the Haitian Heritage Museum, located in the heart of Little Haiti, near Miami’s Design District.

“Talking in general about the Haitian community, it will be important to have something of this magnitude, ” Pierre says of the exhibit that opens in December 2020. “Haitians are the third-largest minority (immigrant) population here and they really go out and vote. The Haitian community is big on voting.  It is important to have the historical context and the education behind that.  This will give people more insight into the voting process in America.”

And there’s also Haiti’s long history of valuing freedom while struggling against dictatorships.

“Once you put your foot on Haitian soil, Haiti gave you your rights to be a Haitian,” Pierre says, and that included enslaved people who made their way to the island. Conversely, she adds, a history peppered with dictators has instilled in Haitian-Americans the inclination to “take freedom very seriously.”

Beyond the artifacts, community engagement will energize “Voices and Votes.”  Videos, created specifically for this event, will feature local community members talking about what democracy means to them. And with help from Florida Humanities and community conversation facilitators, such as The Village Square and Better Angels, open dialogue will help citizens see beyond their political differences.

“The Newtown community, which the Betty J. Johnson North Sarasota Public Library serves, has a rich history of citizens engaging in the political process and enacting change,” says Clay.

“A number of community partners have curated this local history, including the African American Cultural Resource Center located inside our library.  We plan to capture the stories…to highlight our community’s voice in the exhibition. This is a wonderful opportunity to bring together generations who have lived through such struggles and those joining the ranks of citizenry.”

In Bartow, Young says, they’re developing a “red and blue” debate and a conversation around principles of the Constitution and their relevancy today.

In Tallahassee, Baker is planning a deep dive into voting led by University of South Florida Professor Emeritus Susan MacManus, a nationally known expert on voting, and Mary Ellen Klas, capital bureau chief for the Miami Herald and co-bureau chief of the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau.

“Part of the program will ask participants to engage in thoughtful consideration of their own voting identity,” says Baker. “For example, do you study ahead of time, or just go in with a gut feeling. Who you are as a voter?”

Beyond the experience of the “Voices and Votes” exhibit itself, Tiffany Baker sees this long-term benefit:  Florida Humanities and MoMS has forged a new community in the run-up to the exhibit’s opening by bringing together representatives from the Florida sites.

“We have a little cohort of colleagues now that we didn’t have before,” Baker says.

“When you’re doing programming on your own, there tends to be an echo chamber. It’s just nice to sit around and throw ideas out there that are inspiring and fun. Because of that meeting, they’re all going to come here when our exhibit opens. It opens opportunities for engagement in ways we haven’t done before.”

Alison Turnbull Hopkins pickets the White House, 1917. Courtesy of the National Woman’s Party at the 
Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument.
Alison Turnbull Hopkins pickets the White House, 1917. Courtesy of the National Woman’s Party at the 
Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument.