Bristol resident Barbara Franklin discusses importance of American history and democracy following new role with Smithsonian

Published on Thursday, 15 July 2021 17:10
Written by Dean Wright


BRISTOL – Former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Barbara Franklin, a Bristol resident, was recently named the vice chair of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History Board and took a few moments with the Bristol Press to discuss the importance of American history and democracy.

Franklin, who is president and CEO of Barbara Franklin Enterprises, said she has served on the museum’s board for the last three years before being named vice chair. She said she came to live in Bristol when she married Wallace Barnes, former CEO of the Barnes Group and of the same historic Barnes family that originally settled Bristol in the 1700s. Barnes died in December last year. They were married for 34 years.

“We had two bases in Bristol and in Washington, D.C.,” said Franklin of her and her husband’s work at home and in the nation’s capital,” so we were doing that back and forth for years. Now, I’m still doing it. Bristol is a great, spirited community.”

Franklin had publicly spoken on the topic of democracy and said she felt that was the “hook” that brought museum officials to come speak with her about visiting the museum. Before long “one thing led to another,” she said, and she joined the board soon after.

“This museum tracks American history in all of its facets, whether it’s food or entertainment or whatever,” Franklin said. “One of the things that attracted me to it was the work on democracy. There was an exhibit called American Democracy: A Leap of Faith which I thought was superb in how it recounted how our democracy came into being and its different voices because it wasn’t simple (how the country was born).”

Of other exhibits at the museum and being someone always pushing for women’s empowerment, Franklin said she particularly enjoyed the museum’s exhibit celebrating the anniversary and study of women’s suffrage in America, last year.

Franklin credited Anthea Hartig, the museum’s director, with picking up the reins of the museum’s administration over the last few years and making strides in its efforts to provide world renowned programming.

“We want this museum to be the most successful, inclusive, relevant and sustainable museum in the world,” Franklin said. “That’s the goal and strategic plan. There’s a set of actions that go with it. One of the things we’re heading to is the anniversary of our democracy, 250 years in 2026. That’s become a big deal. Given the way museums work, it takes lots of planning and time to decide on an exhibit and what should be in it and how to put it together.”

Franklin noted thousands of objects could go into an exhibit, some of untold value.

“How did I get interested in history? That probably goes back to my father who was an educator and he was a history buff and in particular the Civil War was his thing,” Franklin said. “I came from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which is not too far from Gettysburg. As a little girl I went with him. I don’t know how many times to walk that battlefield because he knew it like the back of his hand as if he knew where ever horse had fallen.”

Franklin noted the importance in studying American history, especially in a time when autocratic countries seemed to be rising in influence in the world.

“I do believe we have an unusual democracy here and I think it needs to continue to be the beacon for the world as to how democracies work, are successful and give freedom to people in a way that is constructive,” Franklin sai. “There’s nothing else like it.”

“Right now, we’re in more of a competition than I have seen in my lifetime between democracies and authoritarian governments,” she continued. “I firmly believe our form of government and democracy is better. It’s a matter of what governments can deliver in terms of what people want from the process.”

She noted democracy can be fragile and that it needs protection and to do that one also should support and know the history of how it came to be.

Barnes had served beneath five American presidents and was a staff assistant to President Richard Nixon. She pushed for women to serve in policy at the White House in making federal government decisions. She was also recognized by Time magazine as one of “50 Women Who Made American Political History.”

Posted in The Bristol Press, Bristol on Thursday, 15 July 2021 17:10. Updated: Thursday, 15 July 2021 17:12.