Report of The Blue Ribbon Commission on the National Museum of American HistorySmithsonian Institution - National Museum of American History


(II. A Challenging Context—NMAH Strengths, Problems, Constraints, and Challenges)

C. Contextual Realities

Like all human institutions, NMAH must be understood in relation to its historical and cultural context. Unlike most institutions, however, NMAH cannot work out its difficulties quietly and privately within the larger context. Its enviable status as a national treasure has obvious costs. It is highly visible, centrally located in the nation's capital, addressing matters at the heart of the nation's self-concept. It does not enjoy the luxury of anonymity. To some degree, the nation's problems and challenges must play out within its walls. And what plays out within its walls must be viewed -- often in real time -- by the rest of the nation. That reality makes all of the following more sensitive and difficult to address than they might be ordinarily.

The history of shifting concepts of the Museum

NMAH is rooted in the nineteenth century foundation of the Smithsonian itself. In the 1950s, with the planning for its current building, it experienced a rebirth of sorts. Initial planning for the new space conceived the museum as an American equivalent of the great London and Munich museums focused upon Science and Technology. Early decisions about collections, curators, and physical layout reflected this conception. Later in the planning process, a decision was made to include social and cultural history. This decision was reflected in the composite name, "Museum of History and Technology." Still later, the concept shifted further toward a broad emphasis on history (and an implied de-emphasis on technology), as reflected in the current name, "National Museum of American History." Notwithstanding these shifts, the early concept and associated decisions became a powerful inertial force. That force is reflected in the emphasis on science and technology that characterizes the first floor of the Museum today. Cultural and political history has, in effect, taken over the second floor. And the third floor is, by and large, the locus of "other." This physical division of turf has a certain stability to it. It avoids the logistical complications and expense of moving heavy equipment. And it offers a home for each major camp within the curatorial staff. At the same time, however, this conceptual division -- Technology-Politics&Culture-Other -- provides a framework that may inhibit the development of crosscutting themes or any alternative framework for the presentation of history. (For a current NMAH exhibit floor plan, please see Appendix C.)

The problem of under-represented subjects and themes

Although the Museum may seem incoherent, it has in fact made choices. It has necessarily given greater attention to some subjects and themes, and lesser attention to others. In thinking about what has been omitted, it is instructive and useful to consider questions such as these:

  • Given the importance of religion in both America's founding and in her subsequent development, why is this subject largely untreated?
  • Given the importance of immigration and immigrants in the American experience, why is this subject not addressed directly?
  • Given America's clear (some would say defining) association with the struggle for freedom, the expansion of democracy, and the quest for equal opportunity, why isn't there more attention to these themes (whether one views them as triumphal achievements, unfulfilled aspirations, or something in between)?
  • Given the importance of slavery in colonial and antebellum America, given the struggles for emancipation and equality, and given persistent problems with race relations, why isn't there more attention to African-American experience and the continuing quest for improved race relations?
  • Given the importance of Spain in America's early development, the continuing influence of a shared border with Mexico, and the large and growing Hispanic-American population, why is the subject of Hispanic-American interconnection not explicitly treated?
  • Given the rise of America as a Pacific power, why isn't there more attention to America's westward reach, to Asian Pacific cultures, and to the experiences of Asian Pacific Americans?
  • Given the importance of capital and capitalism in America's rise to power, why isn't there more attention to the history of American capital formation, the access to capital, and its relation to the growth of a broad middle class? (Similar questions might, of course, be put with respect to agriculture or labor.)
  • Given the mythic power of "the American cowboy," why isn't there more attention to cowboy culture in the American experience? Or, if this seems too narrow a subject, why is there not more attention to the general issue of the nature and power of mythic and heroic themes in American culture?
  • Given the importance of -- and conflict about -- diversity in the American experience, why is the history of "diversity" itself not treated directly?
  • Given the importance of universal public education in the American experience, given America's development of one of the finest higher education systems in the world, and given the increasing importance of human intellectual capital to economic competitiveness and the quality of life, why is the history of American education not given more attention?

Unfortunately for those who must wrestle with the problem of choosing subjects and themes, the list of worthy-but-untreated candidates could go on and on. To some degree, many of the choices that have been made by NMAH are a result of the fact that the Museum's exhibits are rooted in its extraordinary collections. Thus, one finds remarkable displays of ceramics in one exhibit, coins in another, scientific instruments in yet another, transportation equipment in still another, and so on down a long and impressive list. But, of course, the NMAH collections are not fixed. They are augmented over time. And if a particular subject or theme merits greater attention, that can become an important guide for additional collecting. The inescapable dilemma for NMAH is that, as America's national museum, it must be broadly and fairly representative; while, at the same time, it cannot be all things to all people without risking either blandness or incoherence -- or a regrettable combination of both.

The challenge of achieving fairness, accuracy, and appropriate inclusiveness in the treatment of race, ethnicity, and gender

This problem is, in part, a variant of the prior problem: under-represented subjects and themes. It is hardly peculiar to NMAH. It has permeated America's history and the academic treatment of that history. It has been, and remains, highly controversial. The very language used to describe the challenge can elicit contentious debate. But even if the subjects of race, ethnicity, and gender were judged to be represented in sufficient volume, and with appropriate accuracy and sensitivity, there would remain a difficult problem: Should these important subjects be addressed as significant parts of other (almost all) subjects and themes treated by the Museum? Or do they require separate treatment as distinct subjects in their own right? This issue is hard enough as presented. But the issue becomes still harder when one considers a related problem. Many of those who would choose the "separate and distinct" option might really prefer the more inclusive alternative -- provided they could be assured that the "inclusive" option would, in practice, meet appropriate standards of fairness, accuracy, and sensitivity. These standards would have to start from the premise that issues of race, ethnicity, and gender are not mere add-ons to American history; but rather, they are essentially inseparable from responsible scholarly treatment of American history. Yet, with regard to this proviso, there is a significant problem of distrust. It is, of course, possible to combine both large inclusive exhibits and smaller specialized exhibits in a single Museum. But the challenge is not merely to find a politically balanced solution; it is to assure that in addressing these sensitive issues, the highest standards of scholarship are met.

The reality of divergent interpretations of American history

One of the many great virtues of American history is the liveliness of argument about it. Such argument exists -- and is often heated -- among professional scholars. Among the general public, the conflict between divergent interpretive frameworks is less scholarly, but no less intense. The stakes are not trivial. Interpretations can help shape history. And this reality presents a serious challenge for NMAH management. Advocates inclined to emphasize the role of heroic individuals vie with those who would concentrate on less powerful figures and the larger historical forces that shape their lives. There is tension between those inclined to celebrate American achievement and those inclined to focus on America's failures to meet her declared aspirations. There is a related tension between those who see American history as a series of leaps from triumph to triumph and those who see the history as a more difficult and troubled journey. And there is a basic difference of perspective between those who see American values and experience as in some positive sense "exceptional" and those who do not. The opposition between these points of view is genuine. It is sometimes rooted in analysis and evidence, and sometimes rooted in contemporary politics. There is often heartfelt distrust among contesting advocates. They do not allow their differences to be washed over. Still, it is possible -- often necessary -- to use a combination of competing perspectives to produce a responsible historical presentation. So, the challenge for NMAH is to attend fairly to divergent frameworks -- and to use legitimate arguments about interpretation to help make exhibits more interesting and engaging. That is more easily said than done.

The problem of lagging investment in new information technologies

This problem has been common among many publicly funded and non-profit organizations, where adoption of new technologies has historically been slower than in the private for-profit sector. At NMAH, the issue is especially relevant. NMAH has great potential to take advantage of digitization and the web in the diffusion of knowledge. But that potential is still largely undeveloped. Resource allocation decisions have given short shrift to new information technology. The problem is only partly one of budgets, however. It raises important issues about the Museum's intended reach: How important is it to serve the people who cannot easily get to Washington, but who would benefit from exposure to NMAH collections? It raises issues about the relative importance of direct physical exposure to objects: In what ways can electronic communication best substitute? And it raises issues about the relative importance of educational programming: Is it worth the investment (or collaborative activity) to structure learning experiences that can take advantage of digital access to NMAH collections? To be fully appreciated, the problem of lagging investment in technology must be understood as having conceptual, bureaucratic, and cultural dimensions.

The challenge of attending to diverse visitors' demands

The millions of NMAH visitors represent a broad, global cross-section. This presents the obvious challenge of engaging people from diverse backgrounds. But that is just part of the challenge. Grandparents may want grandchildren to see what they saw. Young people want exhibits that compete favorably with video games. Some want it simple; some subtle; some moving; some dramatic; and so on -- all while NMAH is urged to be fresh, intellectually responsible, and coherent!

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