An American Dream for a New Museum

Sam Eskenazi is on a one-man crusade to establish a National Museum of the American People.

  Eskenazi  Director, Coalition for the National Museum of the American People Sam Eskenazi, Director, Coalition for the National Museum of the American People, November 2013  
National Journal
Courtney McBride
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Courtney McBride
Dec. 1, 2013, 6:55 a.m.

Re­tired fed­er­al em­ploy­ee Sam Eskenazi is lead­ing a one-man cru­sade to es­tab­lish the Na­tion­al Mu­seum of the Amer­ic­an People, which he en­vi­sions as a place for “story-telling” on the Na­tion­al Mall along the lines of the U.S. Holo­caust Me­mori­al Mu­seum.

An eight-year vet­er­an of the Holo­caust Mu­seum, where he served as pub­lic-af­fairs dir­ect­or both be­fore and after its open­ing in 1993, Eskenazi be­lieves that the myri­ad mu­seums in Wash­ing­ton fail to con­vey the es­sen­tial com­pon­ents of Amer­ic­an his­tory and iden­tity.

Eskenazi pro­poses an in­ter­act­ive mu­seum pair­ing doc­u­ment­ary film­mak­ing with his­tor­ic­al ar­ti­facts. The mu­seum, as he con­ceives it, would be di­vided chro­no­lo­gic­ally in­to four sec­tions: “The First Peoples Come” (the pre­his­tor­ic peri­od to 1607); “The Na­tion Takes Form” (1607 to 1820); “The Great In-Gath­er­ing” (1820 to 1924); and fi­nally, “And Still They Come” (1924 to the present).

“The theme of the mu­seum would be the em­bod­i­ment of our na­tion’s ori­gin­al na­tion­al motto: E Pluribus Un­um — From Many We Are One!” Eskenazi wrote in a blog post at An­ces­try.com.

The ef­fort has some ini­tial back­ing in Con­gress: Rep. Jim Mor­an, D-Va., has sponsored le­gis­la­tion that would form a com­mis­sion to study the feas­ib­il­ity of the pro­ject. More than 150 eth­nic and tri­bal as­so­ci­ations have signed on to the pro­pos­al; Eskenazi says that these di­verse groups “want to have their stor­ies told in Wash­ing­ton.”

The mu­seum would be fun­ded en­tirely through private dona­tions — an ele­ment that has made the pro­pos­al more pal­at­able to many in Con­gress. Eskenazi en­vi­sions a sys­tem by which for­eign gov­ern­ments provide some of the fund­ing, sub­ject to lim­its de­signed to curb un­due in­flu­ence over the pro­ject; in­di­vidu­al phil­an­throp­ists could be tapped for ma­jor dona­tions; and of course the broad­er Amer­ic­an pub­lic could con­trib­ute, as well.

Eskenazi says the pro­ject is not in com­pet­i­tion with any oth­er planned or pro­posed mu­seums. He con­ceives of the mu­seum as filling a void left by oth­er in­sti­tu­tions and en­sur­ing that every group has the op­por­tun­ity to see its story told at the heart of the na­tion’s cap­it­al.

But Eskenazi also ac­know­ledges the dif­fi­culty of ad­van­cing a new mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar pro­ject in the cur­rent polit­ic­al cli­mate. With “a Con­gress of the past,” he says, “ground would prob­ably be broken by now” on the mu­seum.

The Na­tion­al Cap­it­al Plan­ning Com­mis­sion, the U.S. Com­mis­sion on Fine Arts, and the Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice have provided five po­ten­tial sites for the mu­seum. The ideal one, in Eskenazi’s view, is the Ban­neker Over­look, an eight-acre par­cel at the end of the L’En­fant Prom­en­ade.

Among the ad­vant­ages: The site is off the Mall, which is already crowded with mu­seums; it is ac­cess­ible to four Metro lines; and the city is re­devel­op­ing the nearby Maine Av­en­ue cor­ridor.

Eskenazi “can ima­gine us­ing a little bit of that wa­ter­front space as an an­nex to the mu­seum,” dis­play­ing mod­els of the craft vari­ous peoples used in their mi­gra­tion to the United States.

Oth­er pos­sible sites in­clude the Smith­so­ni­an’s Arts and In­dus­tries Build­ing, the Whit­ten Build­ing (cur­rently home to the Ag­ri­cul­ture De­part­ment), the Aud­it­or’s Build­ing (used by the U.S. Forest Ser­vice), and the Liberty Loan Site (on Maine Av­en­ue between 14th and 15th streets SW).

A Seattle nat­ive who now lives in New York City, Eskenazi, 71, holds a bach­el­or’s de­gree from Wash­ing­ton State Uni­versity and a mas­ter’s from the Uni­versity of Ore­gon. He served in the Army from 1964 to 1966, in­clud­ing a year­long tour in Vi­et­nam be­gin­ning in May 1965.

After start­ing his ca­reer with a pub­lic-af­fairs po­s­i­tion in the private sec­tor, Eskenazi be­came the first pub­lic-af­fairs dir­ect­or of the In­sti­tute of Mu­seum Ser­vices. Sub­sequently, he ed­ited the magazine and news­let­ter of the U.S. Com­mis­sion on Civil Rights, be­fore tak­ing a po­s­i­tion with the Holo­caust Mu­seum. Pri­or to re­tir­ing, Eskenazi moved to the Treas­ury De­part­ment, where he per­formed pub­lic-af­fairs work for the Of­fice of the Comp­troller of the Cur­rency and the Of­fice of Thrift Su­per­vi­sion.

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