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Slice of Life: Lisa Kathleen Graddy, putting first ladies and suffragists on display

Sunday - 3/31/2013, 9:52am  ET

Lisa Kathleen Graddy, 49, is the curator for the American History Museum's First Ladies exhibit, Women's Suffrage March exhibit and the coming Democracy in America exhibit. (WTOP/Alex Beall)
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Alex Beall, special to

WASHINGTON - Among angry, violent crowds, radical suffragist Alice Paul led a parade of women down Pennsylvania Avenue 100 years ago on March 3. The women fighting for their right to vote were the first people to picket in front of White House.

To commemorate the momentous event, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History created a new exhibit dedicated to the 1913 women's suffrage parade.

The exhibit's chief curator is Lisa Kathleen Graddy, 49, the museum's deputy chair of political history and curator of women's political history. She is also a lead curator for the First Ladies exhibit and the Democracy in America exhibit, which will open at the National Museum of American History in 2016.

Graddy took WTOP Living on a tour of the First Ladies exhibit and the new women's suffrage exhibit.

Why is there such an emphasis placed on the museum's women's exhibits?

Women are multifaceted so you want to be able to see different aspects of women here at the museum. If women's history is solely represented by the First Ladies collection, while that's very interesting, that's a very select group of women who are in an unusual circumstance. You want to be able to show other women and groups of women, not just singular women, and how they interact with each other and how they interact with our country.

What is so intriguing about the First Ladies exhibit?

It really is this pilgrimage spot. You came with your grandmother and you want to bring your granddaughter so it's this shared family event and tradition now. But it's also this fascination we have with the first lady, who is someone most of us are probably never going to meet. This is a way in which we feel as if we can get some idea of her or get to know her in that removed way that we believe we know public images.

What exhibit have you been working on most recently?

The thing we're working on right now will be on American democracy. We're looking at issues of citizenship and voting rights and suffrage in general, elections, protest in America (and) just all of the ways in which we interact with American democracy.

Is there a common theme you try to focus on in your exhibits?

I'm interested right now particularly in the role that women play in American politics and in American political society. That can be everything from simply obtaining the right to vote, to running for office, to affecting how our government deals with issues of social justice and for rights for women and children and for all of the things that concern women.

What is your favorite exhibit in the museum?

I love the Ipswich House -- the exhibit called "Within These Walls" -- that really traces the history of this one house that's in Ipswich, Mass. for generations of families that have lived in it and what the house has seen, what the house has lived through.

Do you ever get bored seeing the exhibits in the museum?

I don't think you ever get bored. There's always something different. There's always something you haven't spent a lot of time with and haven't looked at, or something that you've seen time and time again that today for whatever reason you look at it with fresh eyes, and it seems different or you see something new in it.

What's your favorite exhibit you've curated?

It's always the one you just did that's nearest to your heart because you just spent all this time on it. So right now I'm very proud of the suffrage exhibit. It's a small show, but we really wanted to mark this anniversary and to really put women's history back out on the floor in a very positive and large way.

What is your role in setting up the exhibits?

I collect material related to general politics, specifically material related to women's history. I research material that I bring in and material that is already here and just subjects that come up in women's history and in the First Ladies. I create exhibits, and programs and more and more website activity.

What got you interested in curating?

I've always been interested in history, and I love material culture. I like this way of communicating -- communicating with objects and telling a story both with the words and the research you do but also with the objects you can showcase and use as a point to talk about because this is how we all remember things.

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