Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum Focuses on Forgotten Figures

Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum Focuses on Forgotten Figures

Everyone who carried a bag lunch to school has engaged with the work of Margaret E. Knight. A 19th-century American inventor, who developed a machine to automate the production of flat-bottomed paper bags, Knight had to file a lawsuit to receive the patent for her work after a male engineer tried to steal her design. When she died in 1914, she had 27 patents to her name — but today, few have heard of her.

A new exhibition, “Becoming Visible,” the inaugural virtual show presented by the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum, dives into Knight’s contributions and those of other women who have been overlooked. The actor Rosario Dawson, who is on the museum’s board, narrates.

That Knight was forgotten is “not exceptional, but representative of systemic issues across women’s history,” said Elizabeth Harmon, the digital curator of the museum, whose show is about five American women who changed U.S. history — and were later generally excluded from cultural memory and school curriculums. “It’s like women’s history has been written in disappearing ink,” she said.

A patent model for the paper bag machine developed by Margaret E. Knight, from 1879.Credit…National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

The exhibition — which uses expert interviews, objects and archives from across the Smithsonian — begins on Friday, International Women’s Day, and offers the first taste of what viewers can expect from the institution. Although Congress approved plans for the museum in 2020, it is still about a decade away from opening and does not yet have a site or collection.

Led by the interim director Melanie A. Adams, it is expected to announce a permanent leader in the coming weeks, a spokeswoman said. Last summer, its founding director, Nancy Yao, withdrew from her appointment following an investigation into her handling of sexual harassment claims while leading the Museum of Chinese in America in New York. (A Smithsonian spokeswoman at the time said that Yao resigned for family reasons.)

Among the women featured in the show “Becoming Visible” is Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a formerly enslaved seamstress who became Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker. In 1868, Keckley published her autobiography, “Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House.” Washington society was scandalized over a free Black woman revealing the private lives of white women. Unlike other narratives by formerly enslaved people at the time, the book received little promotion; some say Lincoln’s son suppressed its distribution. “Becoming Visible” will present Keckley’s autobiography as well as high-resolution images of the dresses she sewed for the first lady.

Also included is Isabel Morgan, a scientist who helped develop the polio vaccine; Hisako Hibi, a Japanese American painter whose art chronicled daily life in an internment camp during World War II; and Hazel Fellows, a seamstress who worked on the Apollo spacesuits.

Researching women’s history requires an unusual amount of grit and detective work, Harmon noted. Women frequently served as volunteers or unpaid collaborators, so institutional records rarely reflect their contributions. Scholars must scour annual reports, phone books, photographs, newspaper archives and budgets for evidence. They are also increasingly experimenting with machine learning to determine how to accelerate the research process and locate gaps in records.

The Smithsonian has not yet determined the museum’s budget, but expects to pay more than the $540 million it cost to open the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016. To date, the museum has raised $65.5 million from donors including the fashion designer Tory Burch, the Walmart heiress Alice L. Walton and the philanthropist Melinda French Gates.

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