When Roger Kennedy became director of the National Museum of American History in 1979, it was called the Museum of History and Technology.
He had the name changed in 1980 as an important first step in redefining the museum's mission."I guess that's not bad," Kennedy said last week as he thought back over his achievements during his 13-year tenure. "The country didn't have a national history museum before and now it does."
Kennedy said he will leave the popular Smithsonian Institution museum in December to become host of a cable television series on American history.
"At 66, I think it's kind of time for me to go play," said Kennedy, who will be director emeritus of the museum while he appears on The Discovery Channel's "Roger Kennedy's Rediscovering America."
Spencer Crew, the museum's acting deputy director, will become acting director when the change takes effect Dec. 1. A national search will be conducted for Kennedy's replacement.
Kennedy has worked hard to get away from the cluttered feel of the museum that earned it the nickname "America's Attic." But he likes the idea that people feel comfortable in the museum and personally identify with the objects in it.
He said the museum holds with "the notion that you pay attention to people who are often ignored but who have something very important to say."
Smithsonian Secretary Robert McC. Adams said Kennedy has "literally and figuratively transformed our understanding of American culture and history and presented the stories of ordinary Americans, as well as our heroes, to millions of people from around the world,"
The museum attracts about 6 million visitors a year, many coming to see such popular nostalgia items as Archie Bunker's chair and the ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in "The Wizard of Oz."
But the museum also has exhibits on serious topics, Kennedy noted.
Current exhibits focus not just on objects but on themes. Some have sparked controversy, like the exhibit on Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. The exhibit, which marked the Constitution's 200th anniversary, was intended to show the importance of remembering the rights of all citizens.
More exhibits now tell the stories of those not included in mainstream American society, Kennedy said.
The museum staff is more diverse, too.
"There were no black professionals at the museum when I got here - at all," he said. "Now the place is more inclusive. It means that the people who visit are more likely to find their faces here."
Crew, who is black, has been the museum's acting deputy director since last November. He was chairman of the museum's department of social and cultural history and curator of the exhibit, "Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration 1915-1940."