The Story Behind the Museum

By Sam Eskenazi

The genesis for the idea to build a new national museum occurred more than 10 years ago as I walked by the Agriculture Department headquarters building along the National Mall in Washington. It is the only office building on the National Mall. I asked myself, “If this were a museum, what kind of museum could it be?” The answer: a museum that would tell the stories of all of the peoples coming to this land. I came up with a name for the museum on the spot - the National Museum of the American People. It is a testament to the need for the museum that many people, when told about the proposal, were surprised that such a museum doesn't already exist.

In February, 2007, I began work on a formal proposal to build the museum. In March, I took the proposal to the Immigration and Ethnic History Society's annual meeting in Minneapolis, which is held in conjunction with the Organization of American Historians annual meeting. I spoke briefly and met with some historians about the proposal. Some of the scholars suggested edits for the history portion of the proposal and overall the response was encouraging.

The original proposal called for Congress to establish the museum and to place it in the Agriculture Department headquarters building. In June, I took the proposal to a variety of Congressional office and met with representatives of the National Park Service, U.S. Commission on Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission. The Congressional Members and staff liked the idea of the museum, but urged me to first call for a national commission to study the museum. And the agencies suggested more sites and listed four others that are included in the current proposal.

In 2008, H.R. 6883, a bill to create a study commission, was introduced on September 11 at the end of the 110th Congress but did not advance. At the beginning of 2009, I began to form a formal coalition of ethnic, minority and national groups in support of a bi-partisan Presidential Commission to study establishment of the Museum. On July 7, 2011, a bipartisan resolution calling for a Presidential study commission was introduced by Rep. Jim Moran in the House.

For the current status of this project, see the NEWS column on our home page.

About the Author

In 2003, Sam retired from a career in the federal government that included serving as the director of public information of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for eight years, including for six years before it opened and for two years afterwards. His first federal job was as the first director of public affairs for the Institute of Museum Services. He also served at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, two Treasury Department agencies and in the U.S. Army, including a year in Vietnam where he led a 75-man platoon.