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Who Owns America’s Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History
by Robert C. Post
When an exhibit featuring the Enola Gay – the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima – was planned for the National Air and Space Museum, it quickly became a center of controversy. Looking back over the exhibit’s development and eventual shelving, Robert C. Post, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian, reveals that the politically-fraught incident was just one in a long history of clashes at America’s premier museum over the role of the Smithsonian in curating history. From its beginnings as “America’s Attic”, where objects were displayed haphazardly, with labels identifying the item but providing no context, to the story-driven exhibitions that today fill vast museum halls and travel around the country, there has always been conflict between scholars, financial sponsors, and the government over the purpose and message of the Smithsonian Institute.
I always knew that the Smithsonian and its vast complex of museums were government funded, but until I read this book I didn’t realize just how tightly woven into the museum’s governance it really is. The Board of Regents has six members of Congress (appointed by either the Speaker of the House or the Senate President pro tempore, depending on which body they serve), the Chief Justice, and the Vice President of the United State as members, making decisions about the Institution’s administration. Obviously, these political leaders want the Smithsonian’s museums to broadcast pro-America messages, and no doubt would prefer them to steer away from controversial topics (especially during election years, and isn’t it always an election year somewhere?).
The story bounces around a lot. The Enola Gay controversy is mentioned often, but the full story isn’t actually divulged until well over halfway into the book. Pages are filled with countless curators and the experience, scholarly and design philosophies they brought to their position, which is fascinating, but it jumps around in time so often that I had to resort to making a chart of the names and the division they worked in to keep from muddling everything together.
Robert C. Post worked at the Smithsonian for many years, yet when he does pop up it is jarring. His appearances are brief, usually limited to something a sentence starting, “As I said to so-and-so at the time”, but since he hasn’t introduced himself as an active participant otherwise, his opinions seem intrusive. I wish that he had explained his role in greater detail, so that the reader can understand why he’s piping up, or alternatively that he had left out his opinions entirely since as the situation is presented, Post is not a major character in the story.
Yet in spite of these narrative difficulties, I found the evolution of the museum over the years captivating. To be fair, I do fall into the category of “emerging museum professional” so this is my field, the playground in which I love to frolic. Would the story be as interesting to the lay reader? I’m not sure. Probably not. When I try to describe the difference between collections-based exhibitions and story-driven exhibitions – two curatorial philosophies that vie with each throughout the book – the eyes of my husband glaze over. But if you are a fan of the Smithsonian – perhaps a resident of DC who visits frequently with your family – this peek “behind the scenes” will draw you in. Alternatively, I think those that work in museums, whether a large-scale institution like the Smithsonian or at small organization with only one or two full-time employees, will appreciate the debate and may find their own internal struggles playing out on the book’s pages.
3.5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Lady at the O.K. Corral by Ann Kirschner
2012: Vacation: Weddingpalooza
2011: The Secret History of Elizabeth Tudor, Vampire Slayer by Lucy Weston
2010: Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith
2009: The Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran