- The National Museum of American History’s American EnterpriseExhibit and the Value of Structurally Sound History
The 1990s were a difficult decade for the Smithsonian. Particularly frustrating was the popular backlash to the National Air and Space Museum’s exhibit commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the atomic bombing of Japan. Amid a rancorous federal funding battle that ensued, the Smithsonian scuttled the exhibit, opting simply to hang the Enola Gay from the rafters. A small plaque gestured at its place in history. An exhibit on the Vietnam War was also shelved, and the debacle prompted serious soul-searching in the citadels of national memory. Curators conceded that they had overlooked significant questions of tone, purpose, and timing. Following a litany of crises of national memory—the Enola Gay fiasco merely received the most attention—scholars, curators, and practitioners of public history sought new ways forward. 1
One path through the thicket of politicized funding and oversight would deemphasize scholarly narratives and interpretations. Museum visitors rather than scholars or curators would be empowered to interpret and synthesize the past through a new emphasis on the “value of memory.” As two curators reflected, after the controversy, “We needed to move beyond the usual museum exercise of presenting history from a historian’s perspective.” The old “techniques” of “providing expectations and interpretations . . . privileged historical analysis and depreciated the value of memory. We simply couldn’t do that after the ‘Enola Gay’ fiasco.” 2 Chastened by threats of funding cuts, curators sought higher ground by emphasizing a multitude of historical perspectives and everyday experiences. A new era of curating would share “the job of interpretation, of creating meaning, with our visitors.” 3 [End Page 1061]
This move toward recognizing the varieties of historical experience dovetailed with deeper trends in historical and cultural studies. Beginning with the new social history of the 1970s and 1980s, scholars uncovered the significance of marginalized voices and discourses in shaping history, a shift that had already begun to inform some temporary installations at the National Museum of American History (NMAH). Social and cultural historians were powerfully demonstrating the overlooked role everyday people had played in shaping events “large” and “small,” documenting new perspectives and, most powerfully, new sites of individual historical agency, overturning older models of historical interpretation that privileged the overtly powerful. This pivot toward emphasizing sociocultural representation was in keeping with wider cultural trends mapped by the political theorist Nancy Fraser, which she termed the politics of “recognition.” By the mid-1990s, Fraser argued, an older, class-based vision of progressive politics (and scholarship) had yielded to “a new political imaginary centered on notions of ‘identity,’ ‘difference,’ ‘cultural domination,’ and ‘recognition.’” The politics of recognition ascended, in part, thanks to the eclipse of redistributive aspirations during the Reagan years. 4 But it also constituted a significant next step in a range of ethnic, gender, and civil rights movements, which sought to overturn lily-white and paternalistic renderings of the American past.
Bringing diversity into the halls of national memory, curators saw, could empower a new generation of visitors to recognize themselves and their forebears as important parts of a properly diversified national fabric. As Smithsonian curators confidently declared, “The debate over history and memory has illustrated at least one truth: Today there is no single, overarching agreement on historical truth. And because there are many histories, it follows that there are many ways of understanding.” 5 In keeping with broader movements for recognition, curators could avoid foregrounding politically fraught, scholarly explications of the historical development of capital “P” power by curating inclusive installations recognizing everyday Americans’ transformative significance.
While curators set to work expanding their collections, the Smithsonian’s leaders wrestled with the frustrating reality that congressional threats to funding had become routine, increasingly forcing the institution to turn to private or corporate donors. 6 These forces—the institutional reality of a public museum system’s dependence on corporate underwriting and scholarly emphasis on recognizing as diverse a cross section of the American people as possible—define the...