Career Feature: Telling the American Story
When Chris Rudy Smith took a summer job during college at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., she didn’t know it would turn into her passion. Decades later, as the Director of Exhibits at one of the nation’s most sought-out tourist destinations, Chris says that mere curiosity about the past has turned into her life’s work. Home of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, the National Archives gets more than one million visitors a year, drawn by a common desire to see our nation’s most important documents.
That’s exactly what the Archives are for: to collect, preserve, and share with the public our nation’s important information. But the permanent collection that includes the Declaration of Independence is only a tiny part of what’s held at the Archives, and Smith’s passion is to showcase for students, teachers, and Americans everywhere, the other historic records that give us our unique, American identity.
Smith says some of the most interesting exhibits she’s worked on range from working with an original copy of the Magna Carta to a recent exhibit called, “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” The exhibit features the many food-related records held at the Archives. It displays everything from the history of the food pyramid to Revolutionary War broadsides promising enlisted soldiers delicious fare if they fought for the newly independent colonies!
Smith is particularly fascinated by a current exhibit, “Discovering the Civil War,” that features the Confederate Constitution, Robert E. Lee’s letter of resignation to the Union army, and other important records that tell the political story of the war. But it also features less overtly important records, which tell stories of lives touched by this historic period. One document includes a war pension granted to a woman named Sarah Emma Edmonds, who had served in the Union army disguised as a man. “It’s the undiscovered stories of the past, and a drive to share those with people,” that Smith says she loves about her job. She says her team of curators wants others to be as excited about the past as they are.
Although Smith’s educational background is unconventional for a curator—her graduate degree is in English, not history—she says that to be a curator or an archivist, you have to start with a passion for the past and its legacy. “Visit us!” she says. The first step is to visit the National Archives and take advantage of its many resources for students and those who love history. “Become familiar with the historical record. At the National Archives, we hope to teach people not just what records are here, but how to use them,” she explains. The second step? Read everything you can! Smith says the more reading you do, the better you’ll know which records are important to our history and which aren’t.
Smith may not have known when she took the Archives summer job that she’d find her life’s work at the National Archives, but we are certainly glad she’s there now. Her exhibits are a vital part of the experiences that thousands of WorldStrides students have in Washington, D.C., each year.
This is the 12th in a series of interviews with experts and distinguished people in the fields of science, history, and the arts. Each month, Making Strides features individuals with varied and interesting careers who tell us about their chosen profession and the steps they took in order to reach their career goals. To read past career features, click on the tag, “Career Feature.”