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A Living Exhibition

The Smithsonian and the Transformation of the Universal Museum

William S. Walker

Publication Year: 2013

Since its founding in 1846 “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” the Smithsonian Institution has been an important feature of the American cultural landscape. In A Living Exhibition, William S. Walker examines the tangled history of cultural exhibition at the Smithsonian from its early years to the chartering of the National Museum of the American Indian in 1989. He tracks the transformation of the institution from its original ideal as a “universal museum” intended to present the totality of human experience to the variegated museum and research complex of today. Walker pays particular attention to the half century following World War II, when the Smithsonian significantly expanded. Focusing on its exhibitions of cultural history, cultural anthropology, and folk life, he places the Smithsonian within the larger context of Cold War America and the social movements of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Organized chronologically, the book uses the lens of the Smithsonian’s changing exhibitions to show how institutional decisions become intertwined with broader public debates about pluralism, multiculturalism, and decolonization. Yet if a trend toward more culturally specific museums and exhibitions characterized the postwar history of the institution, its leaders and curators did not abandon the vision of the universal museum. Instead, Walker shows, even as the Smithsonian evolved into an extensive complex of museums, galleries, and research centers, it continued to negotiate the imperatives of cultural convergence as well as divergence, embodying both a desire to put everything together and a need to take it all apart.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Series: Public History in Historical Perspective


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pp. 1-2

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 3-8


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pp. vii-10

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pp. ix-xi

Writing a book about an institution as complex as the Smithsonian would not be possible without assistance from many quarters. My larg-est debt is to the staff of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, especially archivist Ellen Alers and Pamela M. Henson, director of the Institutional History Division. Without Pam?s sage advice and knowledge of the his-...

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Introduction: The Changing Universal Museum

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pp. 1-9

If the entire world is in your collection is it a collection anymore?The Smithsonian Institution is the world?s largest museum and re-search complex, and, remarkably, it is still expanding. I began researching this book in 2004, the year that the landmark National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) opened in Washington, D.C. Excitement, and ...

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1. The Universal Museum: Shaping Cultural Exhibition at the Smithsonian

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pp. 11-43

In the 1840s, the National Mall was a barren and unattractive stretch of land. Its most notable feature was the unusable Washington Canal that ran along its northern side to the Capitol before turning south toward the Anacostia River. Black and white Washingtonians knew it as the hub of the city?s slave trading operations, which were clustered along its south-...

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2. History and Technology: A New Museum, a New Era

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pp. 44-85

By the mid-twentieth century, the United States National Museum was, by all accounts, bursting at the seams, overcrowded with poorly main-tained, inadequately lighted, and insufficiently labeled exhibits. Articles in newspapers and magazines consistently referred to the Smithsonian as the ?Nation?s Attic.?1 It was an apt moniker as row upon row, case upon case of ...

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3. Open Education: The Festival of American Folklife and the Transformation of Space at the Smithsonian

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pp. 86-117

In the early 1920s, when Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley was a young boy he lived with his mother in Paris. Years later he recalled fondly his experiences wandering the Tuileries Gardens, freely encountering all manner of youthful wonders. Ripley remembered watching Punch and Judy shows, building sand castles, and then slipping into the galleries of the ...

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4. Inclusion or Separation? The Anacostia Neighborhood Museum and the Festival of American Folklife’s American Indian Programs

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pp. 118-152

Ripley was not content simply to transform the educational processes that transpired within and among the Smithsonian?s museums. He was also committed to creating a more inclusive institution. He saw clearly that the Smithsonian?s museums did not adequately or accurately represent the rich cultural diversity of American society, and he pursued various remedies ...

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5. Finding National Unity through Cultural Diversity: The Smithsonian and the Bicentennial

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pp. 153-195

In July 1970, Republican political strategist Kevin P. Phillips published a column in the Washington Post titled ?President Should Consider Festival of U.S. Folklife and History for ?76.? In it, he urged President Nixon to scrap the ?usual pompous, commission-like proposals? being suggested to commemorate the Bicentennial of the American Revolution and instead ...

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6. A Family of Humankind: The Making and Unmaking of a Museum of Man at the Smithsonian

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pp. 196-226

As the Bicentennial festival reached its peak in the summer of 1976, Smithsonian officials debated its future. After such a blockbuster, what could they possibly do next? They knew the Bicentennial festival would be a hard act to follow, and no one favored mounting a festival of similar scale the following year. Various proposals were floated for reducing its size ...

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Epilogue: Is it Possible to See it All?

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pp. 227-230

...periods in its history. The early 1990s saw the institution become one of the primary battlegrounds in the ?culture wars.? This is an oft-told tale, and interested readers may consult any number of books and articles to learn about the controversies of this period. The existing accounts, many of which were written by actual participants, stand as a detailed record of ...


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pp. 231-281


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pp. 283-291

About the Author, Back Cover

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pp. 292-308

E-ISBN-13: 9781613762691
E-ISBN-10: 1613762690
Print-ISBN-13: 9781625340252
Print-ISBN-10: 1625340257

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 20 illus.
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Public History in Historical Perspective
Series Editor Byline: Marla Miller See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 867742121
MUSE Marc Record: Download for A Living Exhibition

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Cultural policy.
  • Public history -- United States -- History.
  • Museum exhibits -- Political aspects -- United States.
  • Museum exhibits -- Political aspects -- United States.
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