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Summary

  • This article offers opinions critical of the Smithsonian's changed philosophy and recent approach to presenting exhibits in museums that the author claims no longer strive for comprehensiveness or specificity, but yield to politicization. As background, the author writes that after James Smithson's 1846 bequest to the United States, there were eight years of debate until it was decided that the Smithsonian Institution would be defined as a national museum for government collections, a laboratory, an art gallery, and a library. A superb reputation developed over the years, but in the late 1960's and during the 1970's, while the Smithsonian's notable scientific research rapidly continued, its historical and cultural identity subtly changed as it became sensitive to the social and political currents swirling around it. The author contends that a "new museology" became perfected during the 1984-1994 tenure of Smithsonian Secretary Robert McCormick Adams.
  • At that time, curatorial expertise and scientific knowledge gave way to relativism and acceptance of multiple interpretations from outside the museum community. By yielding to those forces, the museums betrayed their history and their mission to increase knowledge. To illustrate her argument, the author uses examples involving the National Museum of Natural History and its director of public programs, Robert Sullivan; the Arts and Industries Building's exhibit "Stories of the People;" the National Air and Space Museum's Enola Gay exhibit controversy and the role played there by Adams' successor, I. Michael Heyman; and the planned National Museum of the American Indian. She also offers that acquisitions policies have caused some traditional curators to despair that the Smithsonian is selling off its heritage to buy politically correct junk. The author contends that short of a total housecleaning of staff, little can be done to reverse the situation.

Subject

  • Harwit, Martin 1931-
  • Heyman, Ira Michael 5/30/1930-11/19/2011
  • Adams, Robert McCormick 1926-2018
  • Sullivan, Robert D. 1949-
  • National Museum of the American Indian (U.S.)
  • Stories of the People (Exhibition) (1996: Washington, D.C.)
  • Arts and Industries Building
  • National Air and Space Museum
  • Enola Gay (Bomber)
  • National Museum of Natural History (U.S.)

Category

Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography

Notes

Article also appeared as a chapter in the author's book, "The Burden of Bad Ideas: How Modern Intellectuals Misshape Our Society," published by Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 2000; pgs. 117-143.

Contained within

The New Criterion Vol. 15, No. 9 (Journal)

Contact information

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

Date

May 1997

Topic

  • Smithson Bequest
  • Historiography
  • Secretaries
  • Controversies
  • Museums
  • Museum curators
  • Museum techniques
  • Museum directors

Place

Washington (D.C.)

Physical description

pgs. 17-31

Full Record

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