Inventing America’s Past

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is housed in what once was the U.S. Patent Office. By 1850 more than 100,000 innovation groupies a year were flocking to the building’s Washington, D.C., exhibition galleries, chockablock with the miniature mechanical models inventors were required to submit as part of the patent application process.

An exhibit displayed late last year, “The Great American Hall of Wonders,” captured that 19th-century excitement about new technology. But the decision to mix tiny models of paper bag fabricators with canvases depicting Niagara Falls and herds of bison—thus celebrating American exceptionalism in its natural as well as man-made forms—was a misstep.

The strain was visible in the exhibit text, such as the blurb citing a painting by African-American artist Robert Duncanson as evidence he had “invented himself.” Sometimes stuff is enough; an early Edison light bulb alongside the golden spike that joined up the transcontinental railroad would have been plenty to enthrall visitors.  —Katherine Mangu-Ward

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