Coming to Kentucky in 2025

Apply Now to Host this Smithsonian Exhibit

Kentucky Humanities, in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution, will be bringing the Americans exhibit to Kentucky! American Indian images, names, and stories are infused throughout American history and contemporary life. Kentucky Humanities invites museums, libraries, and historical societies in towns of fewer than 25,000 to apply to host this traveling exhibit. The exhibit is developed by the Smithsonian Institution's Museum on Main Street program specifically for rural communities and will be available to seven Kentucky communities from August 23, 2025 through July 5, 2026. Sites will be chosen based on their geographical location, ideas for auxiliary events, and physical display space.
Applications are due June 15, 2024. Online application form is below.
About the Exhibit:
The images are everywhere, from the Land O’Lakes butter maiden to the Cleveland Indians’ mascot, from classic Westerns and cartoons to episodes of Seinfeld and South Park. American Indian names are everywhere too, from state, city, and street names to the Tomahawk missile. Americans highlights the ways in which American Indians have been part of the nation’s identity since before the country began. Familiar historical events of Pocahontas’s life, the Trail of Tears, and the Battle of Little Bighorn continue to speak to the imagination of many.
How is it that American Indians can be so present and so absent in American life? Pervasive, powerful, at times demeaning, the images, names, and stories reveal the deep connection between Americans and American Indians, as well as how American Indians have been embedded in unexpected ways in the history, pop culture, and identity of the United States.
The exhibition surrounds visitors with images and objects from popular culture and delves into these three historical events. It invites visitors to explore this complicated history and to share local stories about Native American history and culture.
The exhibition provides a great opportunity for host organizations to explore how the history of American Indians in their areas are incorporated into local stories. Are American Indian stories revered in your community? Or are those connections misunderstood or misused? How much of your community’s celebrated places, street names, local businesses, cultural icons and people have connections to American Indian stories? With support from state humanities councils and other state partners, Americans provides an interesting chance to generate relationships and conversations with local American Indian groups and organizations.
Exhibit Content:
The exhibition explores stories that highlight how deeply intertwined American Indians are in the culture of the United States and examines the complexity of those stories:
  • The Invention of Thanksgiving: A video interview with the exhibition’s curator, Paul Chaat Smith, reveals surprising facts about Thanksgiving. What was the initial event really about? Why did Thanksgiving become such an iconic part of American culture? What prompted it to be celebrated so many years after the first Thanksgiving? What does Thanksgiving tell us about the relationships between American Indians and other Americans?
  • Pocahontas: Queen of America: Pocahontas is an iconic figure in American history. An American Indian woman, prominent in the history of colonial Virginia, Pocahontas’ story has been retold many times, growing more romantic and fanciful with each retelling. But, how much of her story is myth and what do we really know? Many Americans love Pocahontas and have revered her for generations. Towns, streets and schools are named after her. People seek to prove ancestral links to her. What does Pocahontas’ story tell us about how American Indians are viewed in American history?
  • The Removal Act: To this day the Indian Removal Act of 1830 remains one of the boldest and most breathtaking laws in American history. It imagined a country free of American Indians and resulted in the forced relocation of thousands. Despite fierce debates over the act, Americans convinced themselves that removal would be good for the economy and even good for American Indians. What was supposed to be a relatively quick and manageable project spanned nine U.S. presidencies and cost more than 40 times the original estimate. In total about 68,000 American Indians were exiled from their southeastern homelands. In the early 1900s, a handful of Cherokee activists began to popularize the phrase “trail of tears.” It later became shorthand for policies toward all American Indians. The core meaning of the phrase still refers to a moment of national shame and a betrayal of American values. The Trail of Tears resonates in American conversation because the country is still coming to terms with what happened and its lasting impact.
  • The Indians Win: In 1876 the United States was finally emerging from the devastation of the Civil War. Manifest destiny was largely achieved. Indian conflicts still existed, but they were a distant problem. So, it was inconceivable, just days after celebrating the country’s 100th birthday, for Americans to learn that Indians in Montana had wiped out the famous general George A. Custer and 200 of his men. The entire country was in disbelief, grief, and rage. The Lakota and Northern Cheyenne had won the battle. But eight months later the United States won the Great Sioux War and confined nearly all the Plains Indians to reservations. However, Little Bighorn’s legacy lived on. It was replayed over and over through official hearings, staged presentations, elaborate reenactments, and later in movies and on TV. Why have Americans been obsessed with this one particular loss? Why did the Lakota Indians that won at Little Bighorn become celebrities? This fascination with Little Bighorn sheds light on Americans’ complicated relationships with and views of American Indians.
  • Americans Explained: The images of American Indians that Americans see daily, and the examples presented in this exhibition offer a new way of understanding a few familiar events. Thanksgiving was a modern invention. Pocahontas was a key figure in the country’s founding. The Trail of Tears was a vast national project that reshaped the entire country. Little Bighorn was the moment when, after killing 200 American soldiers, American Indians became the country’s unofficial mascots. Together these stories offer an optimistic and provocative way to understand American history and the American present. Like the ubiquitous images of Indians, they give us the power to see into the county’s deepest foundations and remind us that American Indians are an integral part of American history, culture, and identity.
The modular, freestanding units require 750 square-feet of display space with 8-foot ceilings plus storage space for 15 large crates. Additional space is recommended to show local artifacts and special exhibits. Applicants should also consider nearby facilities that can accommodate groups attending events associated with hosting the display. The exhibit requires electrical outlets throughout the room and a strong wifi signal to access some of the virtual aspects of the exhibit. 
Each host community will receive from Kentucky Humanities:
  • Rental of the Smithsonian exhibit for exhibit period
  • Free shipping
  • Exhibit support materials (exhibit script, installation instructions, public relations materials, etc.)
  • Exhibit marketing materials (docent guides, posters, postcards)
  • Assistance with program planning and installation
  • Travel expenses for the project coordinator to attend the planning meeting
  • Help in applying for a minigrant from Kentucky Humanities in support of complementary community programs and exhibit
  • Humanities advisor to assist with planning of local exhibit and programs to coincide with the exhibit
In return, host site will be asked to:
  • Contribute $500 toward the exhibit rental and planning meeting
  • Identify a staff member or volunteer who will serve as coordinator for the project for its duration and who will attend the planning meeting and installation meeting
  • Demonstrate a willingness to plan and implement public programs to coincide with the traveling exhibit
  • Keep track of all staff and volunteer time, facilities, and other resources donated to the project
  • Complete a final report for this project