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.