Learning about Agriculture at the National Museum of American History

Editor’s note: At SCPC, we’re proud to see our student assistants complete internships (read about Caitlin’s and Katharine’s summers) and take part in other enriching activities (like this and this).  Of course, we then ask them to, “do a blog about it!”  Here, Chris Fite (a second-year graduate student) tells us about his summer at the Smithsonian.
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Did you know that RFID technology can alert farmers when cattle are sick? That many farmers plant crops without plowing the fields? That tractors can drive themselves with the assistance of GPS guidance? If you’re involved in agriculture, this probably sounds familiar. I must admit that it was all news to me. I learned about these things and much more as an intern at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. I spent my summer working with the curatorial team for American Enterprise, an upcoming exhibition on business and innovation in American history. My supervisor was Katharine Klein, a USC Public History alum and former SCPC graduate assistant.

I began the summer conducting further research on a group of objects from the exhibition. Based on my findings, I wrote 200-500 word labels that will appear in the American Enterprise online collections. These will complement the labels in the exhibition cases, which will be about 35 words each. If visitors want more information or cannot come to D.C., they can use the online collections to learn about particular objects and their historical contexts.

All of my objects were agricultural, including an 1880 windmill patent model, early toy tractor, and electronic cow tag. My assignment was challenging but also captivating. My sources ranged from old trade catalogs to census records. In describing an object’s historical significance, I also had to explain, in some detail, how it worked. In most cases, that meant having to learn for myself first. It was a reminder of how easy it is to take technology for granted, in the past or present.

Midway through the summer, curator Peter Liebhold enlisted my help in collecting new objects for American Enterprise. To highlight the importance of agricultural education, Peter chose to include an FFA jacket, the iconic blue corduroy worn by members since the 1930s. Surprisingly, the museum didn’t have one in its collections. We remedied that problem by collecting five jackets, including one from former President Jimmy Carter. We obtained some with the assistance of the National FFA Organization. For the others, we issued a public call for donation offers and selected from the dozens of submissions. You can read about the donors’ fascinating lives and careers on the museum’s blog, O Say Can You See?.

The agricultural focus of my internship was unexpected, but fortuitous. In the spring, I developed a growing interest in agricultural history. My work this summer not only dovetailed with my research interests, but also gave me an even greater appreciation for the fundamental role of agriculture in human society. After all, the invention of agriculture allowed humans to settle down and create civilizations. In American Enterprise, we hope that visitors will see how agriculture pervades American history, acting as a driving force for technological, economic, and social change.

–Submitted by Chris Fite

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