William Walker’s high-resolution history of the Smithsonian focuses on those socially transformative decades after World War II, when the institution was forced to repeatedly rethink its outlook on America and the world. With an eye for detail and for a good story, Walker makes connections with contemporary popular culture, political change, and social context, and in doing so provides a new understanding of the road the Smithsonian traveled towards those controversial exhibitions that attracted so much comment at the end of the century. It is a story that has much to say to those considering the role of the museum today as mediator in nations and communities undergoing social change, dealing with difficult pasts, or actively attempting to reconcile the aspirations of different cultural groups. Walker is keenly aware that his history has contemporary relevance and that museums are still struggling with conflicting disciplinary outlooks, with the tension between the academic and popular, and with the inevitability of homogenization and segregation.
The book begins with a young nation’s desire for a national museum which smothered Joseph Henry’s programmatic scientific engagement. Visionaries like George Brown Goode, aware of parallel developments in Europe, repurposed the new museum but, as Walker reveals, rationalism soon became mired in the spiraling complexity of representing an expanding world of material culture in meaningful ways. Here, the author’s discussion of the conflict between ethnology and historical narrative in the 1950s is particularly interesting as it reveals a tension that continues to persist in museums, with some—myself included—arguing that a return to ethnological approaches provides a more effective museological engagement with the experiences of individuals, so critical in dealing with contentious issues. It is fascinating to understand how, in the gallery spaces of the Smithsonian, the anthropological lens was forced to restrict its [End Page 720] attentions to what it considered “primitive” cultures.
The core of the book captures the period between 1960 and 1980 when Secretary Dillon Ripley led an institutional transformation that sought greater public engagement. Here Ripley’s Open Education and desire for cultural pluralism formed the backdrop to considerable institutional expansion. His desire to connect with the American Folk Revival in the 1960s saw the institution feeding into a movement that gained support through its edgy politics. Perhaps unsurprisingly the more academic of the Smithsonian’s staff were reluctant to open a dialogue with folklore practitioners. This extraordinary period of change, which shows the degree to which the institution was responsive to the civil rights movement, continued with its locating a black voice at the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum and an indigenous presence in a series of American Indian programs. Walker shows how Ripley faced up to the uncomfortable racial geography then embedded in the Smithsonian’s museums. The book culminates in the bicentennial A Nation of Nations exhibition, which projected a mature and diverse nation and which showed how far the institution had traveled since 1945. The book concludes with the failed attempt to establish the National Museum of Man.
A Living Exhibition combines strong narrative momentum with detailed analysis, and provides an excellent model for future histories of twentieth-century museums. The book is a considerable achievement. [End Page 721]
SIMON KNELL is a professor of museum studies at the University of Leicester, U.K. He recently published The Great Fossil Enigma (2012) and is currently undertaking a global study of national galleries.