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American Today


Public Historian Franz Curates New Smithsonian Exhibit

By Adrienne Frank

Kathy Franz

(Photo: Jeff Watts)

Tracing the evolution of the United States from a loosely integrated collection of colonies to the world’s most influential national economy is a mammoth task—one that AU public historian Kathy Franz has been recruited to tackle.

Franz, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, is part of a four-person curatorial team working on American Enterprise, a permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, slated to open in 2014. The expansive 14,000-square-foot exhibit will explore the history of business and innovation in the United States from 1750 to 2010 and showcase agriculture, manufacturing, finance, energy and natural resources, information technology, and science.

For her part, Franz is exploring questions of popular culture and consumption—a familiar area of study, as she just wrapped up work on Major Problems in American Popular Culture, a book penned with her own dissertation director, Susan Smulyan of Brown University. Franz, who is working on postwar advertising and sponsored films, movies that were bankrolled by corporations to promote capitalism, hopes to publish an article on the subject.

“The Smithsonian conducts research for years on major exhibitions, so we’re grounding ourselves in the historiography and collecting things,” explained Franz, who will be a visiting scholar at the museum over the next three years and will spend her 2011–12 sabbatical working on the exhibit.

“When I look at the square footage and the sweep of time we’re covering, it’s overwhelming,” laughed Franz, who’s been curator of National Building Museum exhibits. “But it’s also a lot of fun. I like sitting with the curators and watching them think—it makes me a better researcher.”