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Who Owns American History? By Robert C. Post.

April 17, 2014

Who Owns American History? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History, by Robert C. Post.  Johns Hopkins University Press (2013), Hardcover, 400 pages

A history of the Smithsonian Institution and its ongoing debates about how to tell the story of our nation and who gets to control its exhibits.

Robert Post is a professional historian who worked at the Smithsonian from 1971 to 1996, years in which the institution underwent major changes and became the object of raucous criticism. In this book he traces its development and reveals the roots of the conflicts that occurred during his time there. He provides a detailed account of individuals who were there and how decisions were made. In doing so, he lays out some of the basic tensions which historical museums must resolve and which museum visitors should understand.

From its nineteenth-century beginning, there were debates about whether the Smithsonian should be primarily concerned with research and exploration or whether it should concentrate on exhibiting the objects that resulted. After the Civil War, attention focused on exhibits that would “educate and amuse.” Historical exhibits were created to show the evolution of technology from “primitive” to “modern.” Big corporate donors, emerging at the time, provided large sums of money to display the value and achievements of their industry or even their particular company. Arguments arose over conflicts between donor’s version of a story and that of scholars and other outsiders. Questions of who owned an exhibit were anything but theoretical.

The Smithsonian and its historical displays continued to grow and to laud the progress of the American nation through World War II. Then the Cold War provided new impetus for displaying American superiority especially in the technology it produced. Two new building were created; one later named the National Museum of American History, and another that became the National Air and Space Museum. The NMAH opened in 1964 with ambitious plans for meaningful exhibits, often related to technology or the relationship of technology and culture. Its ties with academic historians strengthened. The museum featured a “consensus” version of history which claimed that all Americans lived happily together without conflict or pain. Exhibits explicitly excluded African Americans and other non-whites. At times they clearly advocated private interests or boldly partisan political aims. For example, when Nixon was determined to raise US productivity, he asked the NMAH to create an exhibit to help. It featured “Mom” making an apple pie and asked questions about what items she needed and who deserved the biggest piece. Critics responded that productivity was not the universal good that the exhibit claimed. Another questionable exhibit featured one brand of safety razor and was changed at the last moment to include others. The result was an exhibit resembling a trade show—hardly appropriate for our national history museum. When the National Air and Space Museum opened in 1976, it had been created with the assistance of the Air Force and its veterans and was even more clearly intended to celebrate the greatness of America and its Air Force.

By the 1970s, academic historians and some NMAH curators were moving away from such a glib patriotic version of our history. They wanted to show “the dark side of progress” and to include the experiences of various ethnic groups. “From Field to Factory” broke new ground with its depiction of the African American migration to the northern cities and with design features that led visitors to experience what they saw. An exhibit about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was sharply criticized because it did not display a positive enough view of the United States, but it was allowed to continue.

Against this background, a major dispute arose around a proposed exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, as part of a celebration of the end of World War II. Retired Air Force generals were given unusual access to preliminary ideas, not yet internally approved, and they involved Congress and the press in a major attack on the Smithsonian. People were fired and the museum disgraced. Even more disturbing to me was the account of the appointment to head the institution of a man who enriched himself and private individuals at the expense of the Smithsonian. He was an example of what can happen when governmental institutions are turned over to individuals who put their own private profit first rather than prioritizing public service.

In describing the Smithsonian and its history museums, Post raises important questions that perennially arise for those who lead museums. Were collection and research the chief goal or were public exhibits? What was the museum’s relationship with the professional historians of academia? Should curators be historians? Should donors who wanted their own stories highlighted be allowed to restrict what was displayed and how? Should exhibits be planned around valuable historical objects or about historical stories? Should “stakeholders” be allowed to control what is told in the exhibits?

At times I wish that Post had stated the broader issues and questions more clearly and forcefully. Instead, he usually focuses on the personalities of the museum’s leaders and on the daily process of decision-making. He has his own version to tell of the Enola Gray controversy and how it brought to a head long-standing tension about museum practices and goals. His account of this dispute and others involving the museum are strenuously fair to all sides. His description of how exhibits were debated and created was insightful. At times, however, I think his attention to “office politics” limited the book’s appeal to general readers. The fact that the book is not strictly chronological makes the vast cast of characters confusing. A chart of the development of the different museums which he describes and of their name changes would have been helpful to an outsider like myself. So would a list of the names and dates of the directors and major curators, the dates, and what responsibilities each held.

Who Owns History is a well-researched book about an important and little understood issue of what goes into the making of historical understanding. Those in the field of museumology will find much to interest them, but for general readers the details get overwhelming. I recommend this book to museum professionals.

Thanks Edelweiss and Johns Hopkins University Press for sending me an ebook version of this book to review.


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