The story of human history is written in inventions and innovations. People are problem solvers. Sometimes we invent—create a completely new thing or a process based on new ideas. More often, we innovate—that is, we introduce a fresh idea or an invention into use in some way that creates a new way of doing or thinking. All it takes is a spark—an idea—to get started. Those sparks are happening right now in small towns across America. Daring individuals are coming together to turn community problems into real solutions. This innovative spirit is crucial to sustaining the vitality of rural places and feeds the nation’s continuous need for fresh thinking and new solutions. But innovation flourishes in some rural places and not others. Spark! Places of Innovation seeks to answer the question, “Why?”

About the Exhibit

People in small towns are revitalizing old neighborhoods, rejuvenating historic districts, establishing local industries, creating new festivals and cultural attractions, and much more. They are discovering hidden potential in their places—often in local or regional history, sometimes in contemporary change such as new industry or demographic shifts, and always in the hearts of their people—and generating ideas that bring that potential to life. These small towns have big ideas for creating a better today and a more hopeful tomorrow. Spark! Places of Innovation features stories from over 30 rural communities across the nation that reveal the dynamic relationship between place and creativity. For every community, there is a unique combination of history, resources, leadership, collaboration, and opportunity that resulted in invention and innovation—socially, artistically, technologically, or culturally.

Social Innovation—A powerful asset of many rural towns are their close-knit social bonds. Strong personal relationships, interconnectedness, and engagement in the social welfare and political life of the community are all vital to the social capital of rural areas. When there are challenges that threaten those social connections, a town’s future may seem in doubt. Community members must decide whether to embrace change and new ideas to survive and thrive, and often face daunting challenges head-on with innovative solutions that tapped into their social capital.

Artistic Innovation—Creative and expressive arts—often times the work of an individual or small group of individuals—can also be tools that move and shape the character of an entire place. With arts as the vehicle, diverse members of a community can come together to do amazing things—broach challenging issues, change the physical landscape of a community, and drive lasting innovation.

Technological Innovation—Technological innovation is about much more than just one genius inventor tinkering in a lab. For every inventor, there is a community fueling their work through resources, knowledge-sharing, and other means of support. The relationship between a place and technological innovators is consequential. Some innovators take existing technologies and utilize them in new ways to fill community needs. Other innovators create new technologies, ultimately disrupting convention and altering ways of thinking, working, and living.

Cultural Heritage Innovation—A sense of place—a deep identification with a place—can be a super-charger for innovation. A sense of place is often at the heart of innovation through cultural heritage in rural America. This is innovation through recognition of shared history or practices that creates community. These communities saw the strength in their customs, places, diversity, and shared values to chart a path forward.

Strike the Spark!—Every town is a potential place of innovation. In fact, towns only exist because of past innovation—recent or long ago—and their future depends on fresh initiatives and ideas, new sparks of inspiration. What’s happening in your town? Look around you. You might notice possibilities you haven’t seen before.


If you have questions or would like more information, contact James Nelson at

Museum On Main Street

Museum on Main Street brings high-quality Smithsonian traveling exhibitions to Main Street museums, historical societies, and other small-town cultural venues across the country. These exhibits boost civic pride, as residents young and old, from diverse backgrounds come together to share and celebrate their heritage. Host venues are selected through a competitive application and awarded to communities as a cohort that will work and train together over the next year, leading up to opening day at the first venue.

Visit the Exhibit

May 20 – July 1, 2023

Alpena – Alpena County
Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library

July 8 – August 19, 2023

Three Rivers – St. Joseph County
Three Rivers Public Library

August 26 – October 7, 2023

East Jordan – Charlevoix County
Raven Hill Discovery Center

October 14 – November 25, 2023

Benzonia – Benzie County
Benzonia Public Library

December 5, 2023 – January 12, 2024

Capac – St. Clair County
Capac Library: St. Clair County Library System

January 20 – February 25, 2024

Grand Haven – Ottawa County
Loutit District Library