Preview exhibition Diplomacy Is Our Mission
Preview exhibition Diplomacy Is Our Mission Credit: Courtesy of National Museum of American Diplomacy

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Ambassador Clyde D. Taylor faced threats during his 34-year career as a foreign service officer for the U.S. Department of State. He served in Iran from 1975 to 1979. “The entire time I was in Iran, my name was on a repeatedly freshened list, a kill list, which would be shoved under our door where we lived,” Taylor says.

Taylor’s work took him to more than 65 countries, and he was assigned to live overseas on tours in Panama, Australia, El Salvador, Iran, and Paraguay, where he was the U.S. ambassador from 1985 to 1988. During his tenure, he says, the Paraguayan president ordered police to throw tear gas at him while he attended a pro-democracy event at a private residence.

“Three national policemen, we could see their heads come over the wall,” Taylor recounts. “They tossed a tear gas grenade. It landed about a meter from me.”

He suffered eye irritation, but no serious injuries.

Stories like Taylor’s will now be told at the National Museum of American Diplomacy (NMAD), a new D.C. museum currently under development, which museum director Mary Kane says is slated to open at the end of 2022. Taylor gifted the tear gas canister that was thrown at him to the museum, where it will be featured in a collection of artifacts that help tell the history of American diplomacy.

NMAD says this will be the first museum of its kind in the country, a home for diplomatic issues and content, located in Foggy Bottom at 330 21st St. NW in a building attached to the headquarters of the State Department. 

The museum is a public–private partnership between the State Department and the nonprofit Diplomacy Center Foundation. It was formerly known as the U.S. Diplomacy Center, and was rebranded to reflect its development as a museum. According to the foundation, U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo was given consent from the U.S. Congress to rename the organization in November 2019.

The institution aims to be nonpartisan. The late Senator Charles Mathias—a Republican known for his liberal voting record and endorsement of President Barack Obama a week before the 2008 presidential election—conceived of the idea for the museum in the 1990s with the late Ambassador Stephen Low, a distinguished diplomat whose work included directing the Foreign Service Institute. 

“We are definitely nonpartisan, shown by the fact that secretaries of state, every secretary of state since Madeleine Albright, have been interested in establishing this Museum of American Diplomacy,” says Kane, who previously served as president and chief executive officer of the citizen diplomacy network Sister Cities International. “The museum will represent the impact of American diplomacy not just on our nation but around the world,” Kane says.

Two free and open to the public displays are currently on view at the two-level museum site, and visitors must reserve timed passes to enter. A preview exhibition on the ground floor, Diplomacy Is Our Mission, opened in November 2019 and will remain open until construction begins on the museum to give the public an idea of what to expect. Though the start date of the construction is yet to be determined, the finished museum will be open daily and free to visit, too. NMAD worked with Smithsonian Exhibits to create the display, which breaks down diplomacy into four pillars: prosperity, security, democracy, and development. It includes elements like Le Virus Ebola!, a graphic novel that explores how aid workers handle an epidemic. On the lower level is The Berlin Wall exhibition, where a 13-foot high, nearly 3-ton piece of the Berlin Wall is featured. The remnant is a symbol of diplomacy known as the “Signature Segment,” as 27 world leaders who helped reunite Germany signed it. The Berlin Wall will be a permanent part of the museum.

The content of the preview exhibit will rotate periodically, and special events are also frequently held at the site, like film screenings, panel discussions, and monthly happy hours. Above all, visitors will gain a better understanding of what diplomats do.

The museum highlights that the actual duties of diplomats vary greatly. There are five different career tracks: Management officers handle tasks like embassy operations, political officers are responsible for things like updating ambassadors about political changes happening in the country where they are stationed, economic officers might negotiate a new trade law, consular officers help Americans living overseas, and public diplomacy officers handle public relations for the U.S. State Department by interfacing with foreign audiences.

Once complete, the National Museum of American Diplomacy will contain a gift vault that explores the cultural significance of certain tokens that diplomats give to different countries. It will also have a section that highlights the dangers of diplomacy by telling stories of crisis, hardship, and attacks. Blood-stained suits from bombings, clothes worn in hostage situations, and a clutch bag made to conceal a handgun—which the very first female diplomatic security officer fashioned—are just a few of the items that will be on display.

“Many have lost their lives in the line of diplomatic service,” notes deputy director for museum content Jane Carpenter-Rock. She herself is a diplomat who worked as a public affairs officer in Cape Town, South Africa, and Bogotá, Colombia. 

“We do a great job at explaining ourselves and explaining our policies to foreign audiences really well,” she says. “We put our ambassadors in front of the news cameras, we go on talk shows, we go on the radio, we engage in social media in the country [overseas]. I feel like we haven’t done as good a job domestically here in the United States explaining American diplomacy.”

She says the goal of NMAD is to change that, and a remark that Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, made in reference to her support of the original U.S. Diplomacy Center inspires their mission to “make foreign policy seem a bit less foreign.”

Carpenter-Rock has also thought about how the programming of the completed institution might respond to current affairs like the unfolding conflicts with Iran and connect those issues to diplomatic history. Taking full advantage of NMAD’s position next to the State Department to showcase diplomats who have a general expertise, especially in the museum’s educational programming involving student discussions, is one idea. 

“An issue like Iran, I think a lot of Americans are probably wondering—how did the U.S. and Iran get to this point,” says Carpenter-Rock. “What’s the background? What’s the backstory? What are the issues at stake for U.S. foreign policy? What are the issues at stake for average Americans? We definitely want to have a place in the museum where we can call down a current diplomat, somebody working on the issues to say, ‘Just talk about this for the average American citizen.’” 

The National Museum of American Diplomacy also integrates pop culture to widen its appeal. It has a permanent loan of Madeleine Albright’s pin collection that is featured in her book Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box, which reviews pins she wore to convey diplomatic messages. It tells the story of how child actress Shirley Temple Black later became a successful diplomat as an ambassador to Ghana, an ambassador to Czechoslovakia, and the first-ever female chief of protocol at the State Department. The museum will also display items from the CBS show Madam Secretary. A podium from the TV program will be exhibited so visitors can imagine what it’s like to be a spokesperson at the State Department.

“A lot of students come in and ask us, ‘Is this like Madam Secretary?’” says Kane. “We were thrilled when Lori McCreary and Morgan Freeman and CBS Television and Revelations Entertainment agreed to send us props and artifacts from the set.”

Engaging youth is a key element of NMAD, not just through pop culture but also through  an interactive curriculum that is geared toward grade school, high school, college, and graduate school students, which is also available online for the public.

DC Public Schools is benefiting from the museum’s educational components. Julian Hipkins, global studies coordinator at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Petworth, says that the learning tools open his students’ eyes to careers in diplomacy. 

“For some of them that might be the first time they ever thought about it,” Hipkins says. “In a lot of ways it takes the mystery out of it. It makes it something attainable.”

One of his students ended up visiting the State Department with the school so frequently that the staff began to know him by name. Roosevelt High is creating a career technical education program that incorporates internships related to diplomacy to expedite its students’ job readiness. 

Even for those who don’t envision themselves as career diplomats, the lessons they learn through the curriculum make an impression. Hipkins’ students worked with a student group from Georgia and Azerbaijan in one of the museum’s diplomacy simulations, which encouraged participants to collaborate to tackle the global water crisis.

“It was a really powerful experience,” Hipkins recalls. “Not just from meeting students from other countries, people like themselves from other countries, but actually engaging in the simulation and working on a problem with people from another part of the world.”

The practical parts of the job highlighted in these simulations are something that Ambassador Taylor hopes the museum sheds light on, along with the fact that, at the heart of it all, diplomats do this work in service of the American people. 

“We’re not overseas doing some kind of esoteric thing,” Taylor says. “We’re doing serious work from trying to advance commercial interests… [to] protecting American citizens.”

Taylor remembers that during his first overseas tour he was responsible for hundreds of cases each year that included Americans abroad who were in jail, who were broke, and who had been injured in accidents or had died. 

“We provide all those services,” Taylor says. “And if you have any of those things happen to you, you realize how important that is.” 

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