Brent Glass, Director Emeritus of the National Museum of American History, recently came to Wilmington to speak at Tower Hill School as part of a forum lecture series, “Makers of the 21st Century.” Glass is one of the nation’s foremost historians, having written extensively on industrialization and the histories of Pennsylvania and North Carolina. TSD spoke with Glass about the role of individuals in shaping history, the state of history education and his role at the Smithsonian’s museum of American History.
TownSquareDelaware: You are here at Tower Hill to talk about the difference individuals make in shaping history. What 3 to 4 individuals have made the biggest impact on the 21st century and why?
Brent Glass: Well, Steve Jobs is representative of someone who used technology in innovative ways. He was pioneer in business and entertainment and is a remarkable historical figure. In fact, I like to engage young people by asking, “Will there ever be another Steve Jobs?”
We dedicated a memorial to Martin Luther King this year in Washington, DC, and his legacy continues to be influential in the 21st century. Certainly the civil rights movement, and the way it changed America, is something that is very significant, especially as we struggle with relationships of diverse groups today. He certainly should be credited with appealing to the best in America.
The women’s movement reflected much of the same issues that Martin Luther King was interested in. I would pick someone like Rachel Carson, a scientist based in Pennsylvania, who wrote the book “Silent Spring,” one of the most influential books of the 1960’s. Her book led to the environmental movement. Her legacy was that science can be used for a variety of purposes—that science isn’t neutral. With very sound scientific research, she was able to raise questions about the use primarily of pesticides on agricultural products. Her book had an enormous impact at the time.
TSD: Do Americans know their history? Why is it important to have a good grounding in history, and what can we do to ensure students are getting that education?
BG: There seems to be a growing concern that Americans are historically illiterate. Not that they don’t remember who presidents were or when battles were fought, but they don’t seem to understand that history can be a resource to understand our own times. And so we act sometimes as if we are confronting issues for the first time, and yet they actually have a grounding in history. And to be a citizen in a democracy, you have to have some knowledge of history. And for a democracy to survive, we have to have citizens who understand our shared heritage.
I am also concerned with the process of historical thinking, how one does historical research and compares and contrasts historical sources. So often people tell me, “well, I saw it on television, so it must be true” without thinking critically about the variety of perspectives that might be relevant to the issue. I think history has been marginalized as a subject, and in fact, many colleges do not even require American History as a subject any more.
TSD: Tell us about the National Museum of American History and your role there. What were your most important achievements?
BG: I worked there about nine years, and we achieved some major objectives. We finished a major renovation – we built a new gallery for the Star Spangled Banner and opened up the Museum to make it brighter, warmer and friendlier. And we increased the attendance by about 50%, from 3 million visitors to now 4.5 million annually. And we also created public spaces so we could host more public events, such as theatrical and musical performances and naturalization ceremonies. We actually swear in new citizens in the public square of the museum. So we create more of a lively exchange and lively encounter with American history. It was a great opportunity and privilege to direct The Museum of American History.