Who Owns America’s Past? is about divergent ways in which the Smithsonian Institution’s historical exhibits have been conceived and staged, sometimes to educate, sometimes to commemorate or celebrate—or sometimes to satisfy the demands of donors or so-called stakeholders, or even to promote partisan political agendas.
This became obvious after the opening of the Museum of History and Technology in 1964 (now the Museum of American History, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2014), and its spinoff, the National Air and Space Museum, in the Bicentennial year of 1976. But one can look back, as Post has done, and see the intrusion of such demands and agendas even in the nineeenth century. The Smithsonian’s first secretary, Joseph Henry, sought to promote scientific research. A museum? Henry feared this would entail ethical dilemmas and pose a danger of “direct political influence.”
Post shows how such danger materialized most famously in the 1990s, with the crisis of representation involving the Enola Gay, the B-29 sent to destroy Hiroshima with an atomic bomb. But as Post tells the story, there were many such crises as museum officials and a new generation of curator/historians fostered a shift away from exhibits that were “collections-driven,” with artifacts meant to speak for themselves, towards conceptual “story-driven” exhibits in which artifacts served to sustain narratives echoing academic concerns and deployed like illustrations in a book. Then came an additional ingredient. It was fostered by a new generation of designers whose exhibits intermixed artifacts, props, stage sets, and all sorts of interactive and “immersive” media in order to create a postmodern “experience.”
With problematic storylines, immersive story-driven exhibits often seemed to betray “historical revisionism” and inflame popular passions. After the conflagration of the mid-1990s, most exhibits have aimed to convey an experience that was safely upbeat. But Post closes his book with a reminder that even a “safe” Smithsonian exhibit—with all sorts of people imagining themselves to be “owners” of some a particular narrative—is inherently political and inherently problematic.
Robert Post’s study of the evolution of America’s premier museum is authoritative, thorough, and engagingly written by a curatorial insider with critical perspective. His judgment of Smithsonian controversies during the past generation is reliable and well-informed, especially those concerning the history of technology. This is institutional history in the very best sense because it highlights the role of individuals as well as ideas. We also gain insight into the museum's place in national politics. A most enlightening project.
The great lacuna in historiographical accounts of the modern period is any overview of the role of the modern national museum in shaping both popular and scholarly historical presentations. While there is a modest literature in the museum studies world and a handful of dissertations, there is nothing of the scale and scope of this remarkable book. Part history, part memoir, part polemic, it is insightful, fascinating and sure to be an influential book about the history of technology and the Smithsonian Institution’s role in shaping our understanding of modern American history.
Robert Post’s extraordinary account of the Smithsonian Institution’s treatment of history raises profound and disturbing questions about how curators, museum directors, the Smithsonian Secretary, stakeholders, and donors have shaped historical presentation. Readers will delight in Post’s sometimes humorous characterization of staff, enjoy learning how the institution has changed over the years, and benefit from this careful examination of history, technology, and culture.
Post admirably provokes discussion about how an official national repository goes about presenting and interpreting its historical artifacts—a great pleasure to read.