Have you ever wondered why museums choose the exhibition topics they do? These are the kinds of questions that the Smithsonian Institution Archives’ historic records of exhibitions can sometimes help us answer. An idea could stem from the personal interest of a curator, reflect an institution’s holdings, be inspired by comments from a visitor, or be designed around a specific object. Sometimes an exhibition is directly related to a current event. Such was the case of the National Air and Space Museum's exhibition, Flying Tigers: A Selection of Paintings of Members of the American Volunteer Group by Raymond P. R. Nielson, N. A.
The Flying Tigers exhibition was presented in the Arts and Industries Building (before the National Air and Space Museum had its own building) from October 1972 through the summer of 1973. It consisted of individual portraits of the twenty-seven members of the American Volunteer Group (widely known as the Flying Tigers) who died in the defense of the Burma Road during the early years of World War II. The Flying Tigers were responsible for providing air support to the Chinese army against Japanese forces (visit the Flying Tigers official website for additional information). They are believed to have destroyed almost three hundred Japanese aircraft and their widely reported successes were a boost to the morale of both the American and Chinese people.
Correspondence related to the exhibition (found in Accession #11-075) indicates that the exhibition was intentionally chosen to coincide with the Nixon administration’s diplomatic efforts to reestablish ties between the United States and China. If the exhibition was timely, obtaining the paintings selected for inclusion in it appears to have been difficult. The paintings were commissioned by William D. Pawley who had assisted in organizing the Flying Tigers prior to his career as a United States Ambassador to several Latin American countries. The paintings. however, were in Taiwan and in the possession of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, a prominent political and public figure and wife of one of China’s most powerful leaders during the War. Because the Communist revolution in China did not occur until 1949, the paintings actually symbolized America’s relations with the Republic of China ("Free" China, also known as Taiwan), not with the People's Republic of China ("Communist" China) with which the United States was intent and in the process of negotiating a better relationship with China.
A letter, dated April 28, 1971, from Pawley to Madame Chiang introducing the idea of the exhibition included two paragraphs of rhetoric against "Red China." It's difficult to tell from these records whether this text represented Pawley's true feelings or was a ploy to obtain the paintings for exhibition. In either case, Pawley writes that he would "greatly appreciate your allowing the paintings that I sent you to be put on exhibition with as much publicity for free China as can possibly be had at this crucial time." He goes on to discuss the atrocities committed by the Communists and complains that "the news media are giving the American people a completely distorted view of [the danger in establishing relations with Red China]."
A memorandum written on July 9, 1971 by Curator Louis S. Casey notes that "I have now received a call from Miss Pawley in Florida reporting that Madame Chiang Kai Shek [sic] has agreed to loan these paintings for a ten month period for exhibition in our Art Hall." Did she simply agree that the exhibition was timely? Or did she see the loan as an embarrassment to the People's Republic of China and, therefore, in the best interests of Free China? There is no explanation, among these Archives records, of why Madame Chiang ultimately made the decision she did.