RadioBDC Logo
| Listen Live

Roger Kennedy, 85; brought pop culture to Smithsonian

Mr. Kennedy led the National Park Service from 1993 to 1997. Mr. Kennedy led the National Park Service from 1993 to 1997. (National Park Service)
By Emily Langer
Washington Post / October 1, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

WASHINGTON - Roger Kennedy, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History who transformed the stodgy repository often called “America’s attic’’ into a vibrant display that enshrined pop-culture memorabilia even as it confronted some of the most shameful moments in the country’s past, died yesterday in Rockville, Md. He was 85.

He had melanoma, said his wife, Frances Hefren Kennedy.

Mr. Kennedy, who served as director of the National Park Service after leaving the history museum in 1992, took an unusual path to the top of a major American museum. A prolific author but never an academic, he had held many jobs - Washington correspondent for NBC in the 1950s, banker, vice president of the University of Minnesota, and executive with the Ford Foundation in New York.

He arrived in 1979 to the Museum of History and Technology, as the US history collection was then known, without any experience in museum administration but with a visceral passion for the past. “I’ll teach history to anybody I can get my mitts on,’’ he once told Newsweek.

When Mr. Kennedy began working for the Smithsonian Institution, secretary S. Dillon Ripley was concerned with strengthening its mass appeal. Like Ripley, who put a carousel on the National Mall, Mr. Kennedy cared most about drawing people into the museum and persuading them to stay a while.

Asked about his legacy at the museum, Mr. Kennedy told The Washington Post in 1992: “I would defer to any 15-year-old passing through this place.’’

Mr. Kennedy led what current interim director Marc Pachter called the museum’s “golden age.’’ The building’s name changed to its current one, a move that reflected Mr. Kennedy’s aspiration to house more than a staid collection of collections. He reorganized the trove of artifacts - ranging from stamps to inaugural gowns and machines - to present a broader narrative of the United States.

Exhibits and acquisitions during his tenure included the chair from which the fictional Archie Bunker shot off his bigoted mouth on the television show “All in the Family,’’ forcing viewers to confront an ugly side of American culture in the 1970s; the set of the “M*A*S*H’’ television show that helped families talk not only about the war in Korea, but also the one in Vietnam; and one of the red cardigans Fred Rogers donned every time he asked millions of children if they would be his neighbors.

Some critics did not warm to the emphasis on pop-culture items, questioning whether the ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz’’ merited a place in the marble halls of a museum that also grappled with slavery and racism.

But Mr. Kennedy defended the popular items, saying his hope was to entice people with the fun stuff. “Once we get ‘em in the door,’’ he told Newsweek in 1989, “there are innumerable other things they’ll catch out of the corner of their eyes.’’

In style, Pachter said, Mr. Kennedy used the “principles of drama’’ to make the museum more engrossing. He hired a theatrical designer from the Metropolitan Opera to dream up a display for the flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner.’’ Once an hour, lights illuminated the flag while the national anthem’s melody rang out over speakers.

In substance, he favored untold history, particularly the narratives of minorities long overlooked by many museums.

Leading up to the Constitution’s bicentennial in 1989, the museum opened the exhibit “A More Perfect Union,’’ about the internment of Japanese by the federal government during World War II.

Mr. Kennedy defended the exhibit against charges that it was an inappropriate way to mark the national milestone. Some people, he said, “would prefer to dress up models and have them wander around pretending they are Jefferson and Madison.’’

“The Constitution isn’t a costume drama of the past upon which the curtain went down in 1789,’’ he told The Post before the exhibit opened. “I regard this show as a celebration of the openness of the American system. The reason for doing this kind of show is to make it clear that we don’t always get it right, but we keep on trying.’’

After 13 years with the museum, Mr. Kennedy moved to the National Park Service, which he led from 1993 to 1997. He distinguished himself from many previous directors by wearing the agency’s flat hat, gray shirt, and green trousers in a show of solidarity with the rank and file.