Exhibiting Dilemmas: Issues of Representation at the Smithsonian*
Exhibiting Dilemmas: Issues of Representation at the Smithsonian. Edited by Amy Henderson and Adrienne L. Kaeppler. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997. Pp. vi+285; illustrations, notes/references, index. $24.95 (cloth); $17.95 (paper).
Exhibiting Dilemmas is a selection of essays published on the occasion of the Smithsonian Institution's 150th anniversary, all written by Smithsonian staff. These essays concern a variety of issues pertinent to the presentation of artifacts and ideas in a modern museum setting. In their introduction, the editors comment that "the emergence of the idea-driven museum has forced curators, the men and women responsible for acquiring objects and mounting exhibitions, to confront a wide range of social, political, ethical, and cultural issues--issues that hardly affected their counterparts in the 'cabinet of curiosities' days" (p. 1). This observation exemplifies both the strengths and weaknesses of their book. Almost all these essays have a self-referential quality that is evidenced in the issues addressed and the tone of the writing. That it is the curator who is responsible for "mounting exhibitions" is an assumption questioned in a great many history museums but certainly not in Exhibiting Dilemmas. In his lead essay, Stephen Lubar writes that "the goal of a history exhibit is move people from the ideas and information that they bring with them to the exhibit to a more complex, problematized, and nuanced view of the past" (p. 16). This is one view of the goal of historical exhibits but certainly not a universally accepted definition of the genre.
Further evidence of this kind of thinking is seen in two articles devoted to contemporary historical collecting. The first, "Curating the Recent Past: The Woolworth Lunch Counter, Greensboro, North Carolina," by William Yeingst and Lonnie Bunch, chronicles the authors' acquisition of an icon of the civil rights movement. Their essay assumes a tone of risk and pioneering that does not seem warranted by the realities of the situation. In fact, many readers will question why it took so long for history museums to get interested in such an important facet of what is now mainstream American [End Page 353] history. This attitude is even more obviously exhibited in the tone of "The Unstifled Museum: The 'All in the Family' Exhibit and Popular Culture at the National Museum of American History," by Ellen Roney Hughes. In describing the creation of a new Division of Community Life at NMAH, Hughes writes that "we invented this curatorial entity specifically to study the history of entertainment, leisure, and sports, as well as to pull together objects relating to education, labor, urban life, and other previously marginalized subjects" (p. 162). While they may have been marginalized at NMAH, other major history museums had been actively involved in these realms for a long time.
The same parochialism is in evidence in several essays expressing frustration that, in spite of all the efforts of Smithsonian curators, the public does not "get" their important messages. The public is expecting answers and the curators want them to ask larger questions. Yet it strikes this reader that, for the most part, the curators represented in these essays put the burden of understanding on the public, not themselves. Sadly missing from the collection is any helpful perspective on the really serious "dilemmas" evidenced in the controversies surrounding Science in American Life at NMAH and the now infamous Enola Gay exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum; these ought to have been considered in the context of the Smithsonian's truly important, successful--and risky--exhibitions, such as From Field to Factory and A More Perfect Union.
Happily, a number of the essays have a less parochial perspective. William Truettner's thoughtful exploration of the conflicting demands of art and history in contemporary art exhibitions has an applicability beyond art exhibitions. Richard Kurin's look at the Hope diamond as art, gem, technology, and icon of folklore is both entertaining and provocative, while William Fitzhugh's study of the changing but still hopelessly out-of-date display of Eskimo culture at the National Museum of Natural History provides a thoughtful critique of both past and prevailing museum culture at that institution. And, for readers of Technology and Culture, Tom Crouch's fascinating essay, "Capable of Flight: The Saga of the 1903 Wright Airplane," is a must. Crouch focuses on the Smithsonian's ill-conceived and ill-fated attempt to deny the claim by the Wright Brothers that their Flyer was the first airplane capable of flight. It is an insightful account of what happens when an organization's institutional culture blinds it to what is happening outside its own walls. What is also fascinating is that nowhere in the book is the connection made between this important episode in institutional history and the controversies regarding some of the Smithsonian's very recent exhibitions. One wonders what might have happened if Crouch's essay had been required reading for the entire Smithsonian staff prior to planning the Enola Gay exhibition.
Taken as a whole, this collection is frustrating because of the insular tone and limited perspective of many of the essays. In the end they reveal [End Page 354] less about the issues facing museums and an entire discipline than they do about a particular institution at a specific point in time. Yet, because the authors are employed by a range of Smithsonian bureaus, the book admirably demonstrates the wide diversity of perspectives existing within the same organization. As is the case with most such assemblages, the reader must pick and choose with care.
Harold K. Skramstad Jr.
Dr. Skramstad is president emeritus of Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.
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