The Smithsonian Comes to Town

Guest Correspondence

If you are bored with your daily COVID-19 routine or your children need to get out from behind their computers and experience something you usually can see only in large cities, then I’ve got something that will enrich your lives during this interesting political season.

Voices and Votes: Democracy in America, a Smithsonian Institution traveling, interactive exhibit, has opened a two-month installation at the Betty J. Johnson North Sarasota Public Library. This exhibition is truly nonpartisan and tells the history of voting and democracy from our Founding Fathers to the infamous Florida 2000 election to protests you see today.

Sarasota was selected as the first of four Florida communities to host the Smithsonian exhibition. Why Sarasota as the first community? Florida Humanities leader Steve Seibert called my office at Gulf Coast Community Foundation last summer, and the deal was sealed within the first minute of our conversation. 

Voices and Votes explores the story of America’s self-governing system. Based on a major ongoing exhibition at the National Museum of American History, it also brings national ideas and ideals to Main Street, so to speak, so we can consider how they are reflected in our own local stories.

The substance of this exhibit is relevant and fascinating. Topics include the context and controversies of our democratic system’s creation. The (ongoing) struggle to ensure every American has a voice at the polls. And the pursuit of justice beyond the ballot, through means like our First Amendment right to petition our government. It truly is an ever-evolving story.

The timing of its Sarasota stopover is perfect. There’s the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. There’s also the fact that we’re in a presidential election year, with heightened interest in the purpose, means and outcomes of exercising our right to vote. Decisions upon and ahead of us, both at the polls and in our daily lives, seem to carry added weight right now.

The location is right too. The North Sarasota Library, at the junction of Newtown Boulevard and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, is a perfect partner venue. Sarasota, at times, has been a microcosm of the struggles over who can vote and how we vote. The library itself is a polling place.

A couple of years ago, Gulf Coast brought constitutional law expert Noah Feldman to Sarasota. He discussed the deep roots of partisanship in our country and the ethical duty to practice civility and maintain integrity in our civic engagement. One of Feldman’s many salient points was that, even when we disagree, we ultimately must come together for any progress to occur.

“If you work well with somebody today, you’re going to work well with them tomorrow,” Feldman said. “And if you get into a brutal fight with them, you’re not going to be able to compromise on some other issue.... Politics, like life, are a repeat-play game. We go back and do it again and again. That should give us real incentives to develop a close relationship with the people we disagree with.”

The story told in Voices and Votes is one full of wonderful moments and achievements as well as enduring controversies and disagreements. It is also one of continued improvements toward a more perfect union. It’s our shared story, and it’s unfinished.

I hope you will visit the exhibit. Or join one of the many virtual programs that Florida Humanities and Sarasota County Libraries have produced to extend and enhance it. You can learn more here.

Mark S. Pritchett is president and CEO of Gulf Coast Community Foundation. He also served as executive director of the Florida Governor’s task force on election reform after the contentious 2000 presidential election.

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