News and analysis
November 30, 2016

New Smithsonian Exhibit Highlights American Giving

Philanthropy has long worked backstage at the Smithsonian Institution, but it stepped into the spotlight Tuesday at the opening of the Giving in America exhibit at the National Museum of American History.

The permanent display, the museum’s first devoted to charity, will explore "the dynamic and democratic ways Americans give," said John Gray, museum director.

It tells the story of American charitable giving through artifacts. Highlights include a communion plate from the 18th century, a tool belt used to repair damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, and letters from wealthy donors who have signed the Giving Pledge.

The bucket that launched the ALS ice-bucket challenge in 2014 is the newest item in the collection. Members of the Senerchia family of New York, who started the viral social-media campaign, were on hand Tuesday to donate the vessel to the museum.

The challenge, which raised at least $115 million for the ALS Association, taught everyone who participated "the power of giving," said Anthony Senerchia, who has ALS, through a statement read by his brother, Joe Senerchia. "It’s not what we take from life but what we give back that defines who we are."

Wealth and Enterprise

Inspiration for Giving in America came when curators working with the museum’s business collection realized that philanthropy played a significant role in the story of wealth and enterprise, said Bonnie Lilienfeld, deputy director of curatorial affairs.

The exhibit is part of the Smithsonian’s Philanthropy Initiative, launched in 2015 for research and programs related to charity and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and financier David Rubenstein.

It underwrites an annual symposium, held on Giving Tuesday, devoted to a theme in philanthropy. This year’s event focused on sustainability and the environment. Artifacts representing those causes were on display in the new exhibit and will eventually be swapped out for others that represent next year’s symposium theme.

The foundation money also provides for an endowed curator of philanthropy. Amanda Moniz, historian and author of From Empire to Humanity: The American Revolution and the Origins of Humanitarianism, will take that post and oversee collections and exhibitions.

Send an email to Rebecca Koenig.