The Call of Stories at the Smithsonian Institution: History of Technology and Science in Crisis

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Summary

  • An in-depth article analyzing changes that have taken place over the past thirty years regarding the Smithsonian Institution's approach to how museum exhibitions should be presented to the public. The authors state that for many years exhibitions were "object-driven;" labels were placed with specimens on exhibit and no elaborate attempts were made to address their meaning. This approach gave way to "text-driven" exhibitions which emphasized written interpretations; these narratives opened up the exhibitions to controversy. The authors trace the beginnings of the change back to the late 1960's and early 1970's. Daniel Boorstin, who had become director of the Museum of History and Technology in 1969, introduced the use of "scripts" to serve as narratives for exhibitions to present them in a positive manner and his successors continued the use of that style.
  • This approach became routine during the long tenure of Roger Kennedy as director of that museum (which he renamed the National Museum of American History), and was also in concert with Robert McCormick Adams' philosophy regarding exhibition presentation when he served as Secretary from 1984 to 1994. This style of presentation, however, touched off controversies in the mid-1990's when the Science in American Life exhibition, in which the authors were involved, came under assault, and the Enola Gay exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum caused such a controversy Secretary I. Michael Heyman thought it necessary to interject himself into the matter.
  • The authors argue that such action sets a disturbing precedent, as it gives the signal that if one group is displeased with the way an exhibition is presented, the protest may be heard loud enough to force exhibition changes. When that occurs the traditional role of the Smithsonian Institution is endangered and its identity is threatened. The authors end their article by stating that the Smithsonian does indeed operate in a political context, and because of that truism they suggest the Institution is at a turning point in its history, and, to weather further possible assaults on its integrity, must decide whether or not to do justice to history's stories or merely tell any story a particular group wants told.

Subject

  • Heyman, Ira Michael 5/30/1930-11/19/2011
  • Kennedy, Roger G
  • Boorstin, Daniel J (Daniel Joseph) 1914-
  • Adams, Robert McCormick 1926-2018
  • Science in American Life (Exhibition) (1994: Washington, D.C.)
  • National Museum of History and Technology (U.S.)
  • National Museum of American History (U.S.) (NMAH)
  • National Air and Space Museum
  • Enola Gay (Bomber)

Category

Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography

Notes

Author Post was a historian and curator at the National Museum of History and Technology/National Museum of American History from 1974 to 1994, and Molella was chairman of the Department of the History of Science and Technology at NMAH from 1983 to 1993. Eight pages of Notes follow the article.

Contained within

ICON Vol. 3 (Journal)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520, SIHistory@si.edu

Date

1997

Topic

  • Controversies
  • Secretaries
  • Exhibitions
  • Museums
  • Museum curators

Place

Washington (D.C.)

Physical description

pgs. 44-82

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