The Smithsonian‘s National Museum of American History is presenting its inaugural “Great Americans” Award to two former Secretaries of State, Madeleine K. Albright and Colin Powell, during individual ceremonies Sept. 7 and Dec. 7. The “Great Americans” program, supported by David M. Rubenstein, a member of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, includes a conversation with the recipient and the presentation of a newly minted museum medal that recognizes lifetime contributions that embody American ideals and ideas.
Going forward, the “Great Americans” Award will be presented annually to up to four recipients and includes an interview with the awardee moderated by Rubenstein and the opportunity for the museum to add objects to the national collections. More information is at: https://americanhistory.si.edu/great-americans.
“The ‘Great Americans’ award and conversations with history makers allows us to inspire the next generation to embrace the fundamental ideals and ideas that have distinguished this nation since its founding,” said Museum Director John Gray. “Democracy, freedom, justice, opportunity and equality are among the enduring American values and ideals embodied by our first two honorees.”
Albright, who will accept her medal Sept. 7, was born in 1937 in Czechoslovakia and immigrated to the U.S. in 1948. She became a U.S. citizen while a college student. In 1997, Albright was confirmed as the first female Secretary of State and became, at that time, the highest ranking woman in the history of U.S. government. Previously, she served as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations and a member of President Bill Clinton’s cabinet from 1993 to 1997. In 2012, she made a donation to the museum that included the Louis Féraud red wool dress and jacket and Ferragamo red leather pumps she wore on Dec. 5, 1996, when her nomination to be the 64th, and first female, U.S. Secretary of State was announced. Additional objects in the collection are the green leather briefcase Albright used as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Secretary of State as well as several of her signature brooches and pins. As part of the program, Rubenstein will host a discussion on the stage with Albright.
Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants, was born in New York City in 1937. He will receive his medal on Dec. 7. In 2001, Powell was sworn in as the 65th Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, the first African American appointed to the position. His military service included two tours of duty in Vietnam, service as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and in 1991, Powell was the commander of forces during Operation Desert Storm. He retired as a four-star general from the U.S. Army in 1993. Powell is also an object donor to the museum, his uniform worn during Operation Desert Storm is on view in the museum’s “Price of Freedom: Americans at War” exhibition.
The presentation medal, cast in 1.85 oz. of fine gold in Wisconsin, features an American eagle with rays of the sun on the obverse or “head’s side” with the words, “Great Americans” and “National Museum of American History” struck around the image. The reverse side honors one of the museum’s most important treasures, the Star-Spangled Banner, and includes the mission of the Smithsonian: “For the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” The medal measures approximately 1 1/2 inches in diameter.
Inspiration for the design came from the museum’s National Numismatic Collection, which holds two rare Double Eagle coins designed by famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, enlisted by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 to design the $20 dollar gold piece. The medal was made possible by museum board member Jeff Garrett and designed by Michael Guilfoyle, an international designer of coins and medals.
Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history. It helps people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future. The museum is continuing to renovate its west exhibition wing, developing galleries on democracy and culture. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. For more information, visit http://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.