Pete Daniel: OAH president forcefully condemns Smithsonian practices

Historians in the News

... Before the 1980s, Congress funded most Smithsonian exhibits. Curators conceptualized exhibits and had responsibility for scope and content. Unlike a lone historian writing a monograph, a curator headed a museum exhibit team that consulted with academic historians, chose objects that fit the story, explored how best to present relevant public programs, created a dynamic design, and produced a legible script that neither offended experts nor confused eighth graders. Museum practice demands that curators maintain responsibility for all these elements.

Since the late 1980s, the NMAH staff has been pruned not only by resignations, retirement, and death but also by design. Curators who left the museum were seldom replaced, resulting in a void of fresh and bold ideas generated by younger scholars. Specialists with decades of knowledge of collections and unique technological skills retired with no effort either to preserve their knowledge or to replace their skills. Because of reorganization and funding cuts, remaining curators took on burdensome clerical and secretarial responsibilities, leaving less time for creative pursuits.

Trends in exhibits over the past two decades provide a cautionary tale, not only of curatorial decline, but also of the impact of private funding. In 1987, Congress funded the NMAH exhibit, A More Perfect Union, an exhibit on Japanese internment that marked the two hundredth anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. Curator Tom Crouch and director Roger Kennedy not only endured outraged criticism for bringing up this nasty chapter of U.S. history but also received death threats. To caution visitors that internment was not a celebratory chapter of U.S. history, museum visitors first saw a TV monitor featuring John Chancellor who explained that the exhibit was an instance when the U.S. Constitution failed. The exhibit’s success demonstrated that the American public did not flinch from controversy. Since 1987 the museum has mounted some successful exhibits, but none that pushed so far and achieved so much as A More Perfect Union.

While the National Museum of American History stood by A More Perfect Union in the face of opposition, in the early 1990s Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman failed to support curators at the National Air and Space Museum in the Enola Gay fiasco. The Smithsonian Institution, with its hoary tradition of conservative exhibits and the trust of millions of visitors and admirers, abandoned Air and Space curators in their effort to present a provocative and challenging exhibit on the end of World War II and the opening of the nuclear age. I agree with the verdict reached by Richard H. Kohn, former chief of Air Force history for the U.S. Air Force, member of three advisory committees for the National Air and Space Museum, and currently professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “The cancellation of the National Air and Space Museum’s (NASM) original Enola Gay exhibit in January 1995,” he wrote, “may constitute the worst tragedy to befall the public presentation of history in the United States in this generation.” He faulted Secretary Heyman both for folding before pressure and for warning curators that controversy within the Smithsonian would not be tolerated. An intellectual chill settled over Smithsonian museums (1)....
Read entire article at Pete Daniel in the newsletter of the Organization of American Historians (August)

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