Brown University Students Tackle Advertising History with the Smithsonian


In the fall of 2011, the American Enterprise team got some welcome assistance from Brown University’s advertising history class.  Professor Susan Smulyan, who teaches the university’s popular “American Advertising: History and Consequences” course, agreed to enlist members of the class in an experiment to co-curate the Marketing Moments section of the exhibition.

Smulyan’s class traces the history of American advertising, particularly in the 20th century, to understand the role advertising plays in our culture.  Students learn about the rise of national advertising, the economics of the advertising industry, the relation of advertising to consumption, the representation of advertising in fiction and film, and broadcast, internet, and international advertising.  It seemed a perfect fit with our need to create a section of the exhibition on the history of the advertising.

Marketing Moments is a dual-sided section of the exhibition, with a detailed history of advertising as an industry on one side, and a visual history of advertising that will face the public plaza. It was this history of advertising “at a glance” that we challenged students to curate using the Museum’s collections.

A conceptual rendering of the Marketing Moments section.

The National Museum of American History has amazing resources related to advertising.  These include print, radio and television advertisements and the business records that accompany them.  Since the students could not travel to DC to dig in the Archives, I choose 100 images from the N.W. Ayer Collection and others that formed the mini-archive that students could draw on.  While this was not a comprehensive sample, it was a solid representation of some major campaigns and types of print advertising. You can take a look at the ads student used on the museum’s Flickr account.

As their final exam, we asked students to choose eight to ten images that represented the history of advertising and pull them together in an exhibit form.  I also asked them to give the team of curators advice on collecting in a new area – on the web and where digital ads meet social networking.

The results were fabulous – deeply historical, graphically interesting, and smart.   We’d love to showcase them all, but instead, we’ve selected the top eight. We’ll share a one a day for the next two weeks. If you haven’t already, this is a great time to subscribe!

How would you curate this exhibition? What images would you include?  Take a look at the Flickr site and let us know!

Susan Smulyan, Professor, American Studies, Brown University:

The college students in “American Advertising: History and Consequences” (about 150 of them) and I had wonderful fun collaborating with the National Museum of American History on their new exhibit. The lecture course, offered at Brown through the American Studies Department, asks many of the same questions as the exhibit including:

  • How does advertising work?
  • What power do consumers have?
  • Do historical changes in advertisements change the function of the institution?
  • What influences advertising?

Students read historical accounts of the advertising industry, sociological theories about advertising’s role in the culture of consumption, and even novels set in advertising agencies. In their written work, they compared two advertisements for the same product – separated by 20 years – and mapped a brand strategy for a product.

Students loved the chance to use National Museum of American History’s archival images and to prepare a mini-exhibit (along with a couple of essays on the workings of advertising and suggestions for how to collect digital advertising). The assignment brought us many benefits, but perhaps most importantly allowed the students to understand their learning as part of a public and important dialogue.

The mini-exhibits are fabulous – hope you think so too!


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    About the Author


    Kathleen FranzKathleen Franz is Associate Professor and Director of Public History in the History Department at American University and curator for the American Enterprise exhibition. Learn more about the exhibition team.View all posts by Kathleen Franz