The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has named Benjamin Filene as its new associate director of curatorial affairs as the museum engages in a strategic-planning process focused on public history and an audience-centered approach. Filene began his appointment Feb. 3.
The museum embarked on a strategic-planning process in November 2019 to shape how it will present history and engage with diverse audiences into 2030. The plan will be designed to guide the museum through one of the country’s most significant anniversaries – the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 2026. With the vision of becoming the most accessible, inclusive, relevant and sustainable history institution in the nation, the museum is reaching out to the public with a bilingual (English/Spanish) national public survey asking for input.
Filene joins the museum from the North Carolina Museum of History, where he served as the chief curator, responsible for shaping the museum’s exhibition program and collections development. Before that, he was the director of public history and a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, where he initiated projects that brought together students and community partners to collaborate on projects designed to engage the public with historical issues that had contemporary resonance. He served as the senior exhibition developer at the Minnesota History Center, one of the nation’s largest state history museums. Filene gained a global perspective from Fulbright Fellowship work with the Helsinki City Museum and the University of Helsinki, which further developed his goals to re-envision national museums to foster collective identity.
“A committed public historian, Benjamin Filene has devoted three decades to the museum field as a leading scholar, curator, exhibition developer and a professor and mentor to many,” said Anthea M. Hartig, the Elizabeth MacMillan Director of the museum. “He is a true believer in museums, committed to ensuring that audiences see themselves reflected in history.”
With a doctorate in American Studies from Yale University and a bachelor’s degree with honors in American History from Brown University, Filene brings a broad portfolio to the museum as a public historian committed to creating and shaping new spaces for the intersection of history with contemporary issues. As a leading scholar, his role will be to support the museum’s intellectual foundation, expand the public’s access to the museum’s collections and lead a division of 140 curators, historians, conservators, archivists and collections managers and other experts such as registrars and digital record specialists.
As a respected scholar and accomplished exhibition developer, Filene envisions museums as places where people see themselves and each other. He looks forward to sharing his passion for creating an environment where “visitors can engage with the past and recognize that they have a stake in it.”
Filene co-edited Letting Go? Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, which included two of his essays along with those of other scholars addressing key questions of ownership, audience and interpretation. His award-winning book, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2000, remains a seminal work.
Filene succeeds Catherine Eagleton who served in the position January 2017 through July 2019 and left to be director of museums at St. Andrews University in Scotland.
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 located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th streets, 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.