Sam Walton, Wal-Mart history part of Smithsonian’s ‘American Enterprise’ exhibit

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 407 views 

The iconic ball cap worn by Sam Walton, a miniature Wal-Mart truck and short biographical stories of Walton’s retail rise are among more than 600 artifacts woven into the fabric of the “American Enterprise” exhibit set to open July 1 at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Rob Walton, son of Wal-Mart founder, told shareholders on June 5 that one of his dad’s baseball caps was headed to the Smithsonian. Peter Liebhold, one of the three curators for the massive new exhibit, said the group spent more than four years focusing on the procurement of artifacts and biographies that would tell the story of America’s interaction with capitalism and democracy.

The exhibit traces the country’s development from a small, agricultural nation to one of the world’s most vibrant economies through business enterprise. The exhibit spans 8,000 square feet in the museum’s new Innovation Wing. According to the Smithsonian, “American Enterprise” seeks to convey the drama, breadth and diversity of America’s business heritage along with its benefits, failures and unanticipated consequences along the way.

Liebhold told The City Wire that in many respects Wal-Mart’s rise from a single Five and Dime store in rural Arkansas to a global retail giant closely mirrors the rise of American business which is explored through four main themes in the exhibit. The curators sought to tell the American Enterprise story using the themes of “Opportunity, Competition, Common Good and Innovation” throughout four chronological eras.
• Merchant Era (1770s–1850s)
• Corporate Era (1860s–1930s)
• Consumer Era (1940s– 1970s)
• Global Era (1980s–2010s)

“Wal-Mart fits easily into these themes. The innovation with supply chain that helped Wal-Mart grow into an international giant is featured in the Global Era. The earlier days of Walton’s expansion of the discount model is part of the Corporate Era,” Liebhold said.

The retailer also is featured for its ability to democratize commodities for the masses with programs like $4 prescriptions and expanded organic foods. Liebhold said Walton and his ball cap are also featured on the biography wall among other iconic innovators such as Alexander Graham Bell and his experimental telephone, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and Michael Bloomberg’s Bloomberg terminal.

While Walton didn’t invent an apparatus, he did reinvent the retail shopping experience with the supercenter concept. Liebhold said all the historical artifacts and biographical entries help to illustrate manufacturing, retail and service as well as technology in American business.

Molly Blakeman, corporate spokeswoman with Wal-Mart, said the Walmart Museum worked with Smithsonian curators to ensure accuracy of Wal-Mart's story points as well as authenticity of artifacts such as Sam’s baseball cap, which was one of two he wore during his final days before dying in 1992.

Alan Dranow, senior director Walmart Heritage Group, told The City Wire that curators with the Smithsonian reached out to Wal-Mart some time ago and this is the first time Wal-Mart or any of its memorabilia has been on display in the prestigious national archive.

“It’s a big deal because having these artifacts in the Smithsonian officially records them into American memory. In working with the Smithsonian on this exhibit we have developed a relationship and agreed to participate in future exhibits where relevant,” Dranow said.

Andy Wilson, a retired executive officer of Wal-Mart Stores, said the baseball cap bearing the Wal-Mart logo of that time is a fitting artifact for the Smithsonian exhibit.

“I saw Sam put on the hat many times. When he put it on his head that automatically readied him for operational work. He got focused on the business at hand and it also brought him down to the customer level,” Wilson said. “That ball cap has become symbolic for the sustained culture at Wal-Mart because it symbolizes two things — people, Wal-Mart’s greatest asset, and the customers.”

“The cap was Sam’s trademark. He knew a lot about branding. He traveled with these caps, he always wore them and he gave them out to associates as keepsakes. He believed this cap made him more relatable to associates," Dranow said.

Liebhold said Wal-Mart is also featured in its “People in History” display that is modeled after Parade Magazine’s “What People Earn” edition. The first 50-year Wal-Mart employee, Valeda Snyder, who worked with Sam Walton at Ben Franklin Stores first before joining Wal-Mart, is featured in that display.

“You know Sam owned 17 Ben Franklin stores before he ever started Wal-Mart. Valeda Snynder was there working with Sam during that era and then joined Wal-Mart for a total of more than 50 years,” Dranow said. "The display is being shown tonight (June 25)  to a select group ahead of the July 1 opening. I was unable to get there but we have sent two representatives from the Wal-Mart Museum for the event. I do plan to visit later this year."

Wilson also said he plans to get to Washington in the coming months to see the exhibit that will be on display for a minimum of 20 years.

"It’s pretty amazing to see our Wal-Mart on this prestigious stage of American history,” Wilson said.

Also appearing in the exhibit is Sam’s Club CEO Rosalind Brewer. Liebhold said Brewer was visiting the exhibit June 25 for a sneak peek. She is part of a business women’s biography video display. Other women in the display include Janet Yellen and Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte. Liebhold said Brewer’s video biography appears next to Yellen, the Federal Reserve Board Chairwoman.

He said in the retail innovation segment, Brewer is next to Jeff Bezos, founder of Liebhold said Brewer is part of the new era for Wal-Mart and chosen for the exhibit because of her work in retail and the 22 years she spent working her way up the management chain at Kimberly Clark. She has also championed the plight of small businesses and education.

Liebhold said the exhibit also looks at consumer marketing campaigns targeted to diverse audiences, including teens, African Americans and Latinos. Familiar brand names from 1950s radio and television ads to today’s digital marketing showcase how marketers created new ways of thinking about the relationship between consumers and products.

Something else of interest to visitors from Arkansas is the rise of the poultry industry which is covered in the agricultural, food segment. Liebhold said Arkansas’ soybean industry and poultry sector were among the major accomplishments in commercial food supply as the nation moved from an agricultural economy to a consumer-based economy.