Smithsonian Exhibition Explores Importance of Work In American Life - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Smithsonian Exhibition Explores Importance of Work In American Life

Opens October 30 at Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Image of a construction worker sitting on scaffolding, high above the New York City skyline, working on as skyscraper construction. The logo for the The Way We Worked special exhibit with exhibition dates October 30, 2021 - January 23, 2022 is layered over the image.

Bristol, Va.-Tenn. (October 19, 2021) – Work and the workplace have gone through enormous changes between the mid-19th century, when 60 percent of Americans made their living as farmers, and the early 21st century. The Smithsonian traveling exhibition, The Way We Worked, celebrates the history of work in America. It tells stories of how hard-working Americans of every ethnicity, class, gender and age power the nation. The exhibition will be on display at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Historic Downtown Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia October 30, 2021 through January 23, 2022. In addition, the museum has created a supplementary display that focuses on the history of work from across the region, and it will be offering a variety of public programs during the exhibit’s time here. The museum is also partnering with the Bristol Public Library to highlight books about work for adults, teens, and children – these will be on display and available to check out from the library.

The Way We Worked, an exhibition created by the National Archives, is adapted for travel by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) and made possible by the generous support of the Unites States Congress. 

“The work that each of us does every day speaks volumes about who we are as individuals, as communities, and as a country,” said Myriam Springuel, director of SITES and Smithsonian Affiliations. “We all have our own journeys, and each of these jobs reflects the various kinds of work that has and continues to build and strengthen the nation.”

The Way We Worked brings to light the who, what, where, why, and how of Americans at work. It explores the places Americans worked, from farms and factories and mines to restaurants, as well as in homes. It examines not only the effects of technology and automation, but also how workers striving for better working conditions, wages and hours, and an end to racial and gender discrimination changed America’s work history. The exhibition illustrates how America’s workforce is as diverse as the nation itself. Dreams of new jobs and opportunities led millions to America’s shores. The Way We Worked provides some answers to why people work – from simply paying the bills to pursuing a calling, serving the country and giving back to the community. It explores what work tells people about each other. Whole communities may become known by the work that happens there, like Idaho’s Silver Valley with its strong mining heritage. 

“It’s important that we offer a local perspective to traveling exhibitions whenever possible, and we’ve sourced a lot of compelling regional content,” said Dr. René Rodgers, Head Curator at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. “From manufacturing and agriculture to retail and the resource extraction of timber or coal, a number of industries in our region have played important roles in the development of our communities here at home.” 

The photos featured in the traveling exhibition come from the vast collection of the National Archives, which is home to thousands of photos of work and workplaces taken by government agencies. The images featured in The Way We Worked, though possibly taken merely for purposes of record keeping, often reveal much more about how social forces such as immigration, gender, ethnicity, class and technology transformed the workforce. 

Local companies that are featured in the museum’s supplemental display to The Way We Worked special exhibit include several still in operation, including Eastman, Strongwell, L. C. King Manufacturing Co., Mapes Strings, Bristol Herald Courier, and Helms Candy Company. Historical images and stories from a number of other businesses, public services, essential work, and media include Dixie Tannery, Hecht’s Bakery, the Virginia Café, H. P. King, Monroe Calculating Company, King Rogers Grocery, Sullins College, and WOPI.  

The Way We Worked is accompanied by a cell-phone tour that allows visitors to access additional details provided by exhibition curator Bruce Bustard, former senior curator for the National Archives.

Special thanks are also due to the Massengill-DeFriece Foundation for their support of the exhibition at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

For more information about the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, visit Public programming related to the exhibit will be listed on the BCM website’s Events page.