- The Smithsonian as a Microcosm of American Museum PracticeRobert C. Post, Who Owns America’s Past?
Robert C. Post’s Who Owns America’s Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. Pp. 384. $29.95) is an important work for anyone in the museum profession to study. The book is a well-written, at times slightly colloquial, account of the history of the Smithsonian and how it evolved between about 1930 and the early twenty-first century. An equally significant point is that it guides the reader to a better understanding of the important issues related to operating museums in the United States today. The Smithsonian is arguably the largest and most famous museum complex in the country. The problems encountered there due to interactions among museum staff, the visiting public, and so-called “stakeholders” are universal and apply to almost any museum of any scale.
The book is primarily organized in a chronological order covering the historical evolution of mainly two museums, the National Museum of American History and the National Air and Space Museum, as well as their antecedents, which were housed in the Arts and Industries Building beginning in 1881. As the narrative progresses we meet the various players who have shaped these institutions as they shifted from nineteenth-century styles of collecting and exhibition with little or no interpretation to the highly complex and costly “story related” exhibits that are designed and built at the Smithsonian and other institutions today.
In many ways, the purpose of museums has shifted over the past century. In the early twentieth century, museum curators would collect and display their specimens (in the case of natural history museums) or artifacts [End Page 248] (in the case of history museums). Labeling was usually limited to basic identification, date, and sometimes technical specifications.
However, beginning in the late 1940s and continuing in the 1950s and after, this method changed at the Smithsonian. A new type of museum professional appeared: the exhibit designer. These new members of the museum staff were not always appreciated by the curators. Post relates a story about a designer who was told by a curator that “working with you artistic types is not in my job description.” When Frank Taylor—then in charge of the Department of Engineering and Industries—heard about this, he went to the offending curator’s office and rewrote his job description on the spot, saying, “Now it is” (p. 33).
Post points to the 1955 opening of the exhibit Gowns of the First Ladies as being an early example of how improved lighting combined with an exhibit space created by professional designers could vastly improve the accessibility of artifacts for the average visitor. The positive response by the press and visitors was immediate, and it quickly became an immensely popular exhibit.
The book also covers the long effort on the part of museum staff and others to procure the funding to construct two new museum buildings, the Museum of History and Technology (opened in 1964, now the National Museum of American History) and the National Air and Space Museum, which opened in 1976. This is a fascinating story, and it illustrates how difficult it was to accomplish this feat during a period dominated by crisis—beginning with the Great Depression of the 1930s, followed by World War II and the cold war. There were times when national stress blocked these efforts (during World War II), while at other times national or international events helped—as in the case of the launching of Sputnik and the ensuing space race, which proved to be essential aids in getting Congress to authorize funding for the Museum of History and Technology.
As the Smithsonian and its exhibits grew more sophisticated, some truly great exhibitions were designed and built. Post describes how the exhibit 1876 transformed the old Arts and Industries Building into a sort of time machine that took visitors almost literally back a century to the nation’s centennial. Another remarkable exhibit was A Nation of Nations, which celebrated the diverse cultural history of the country. If We Are So Good, Why Aren’t...