Controversy, thy name be Smithsonian

Guest post by Robert C. Post

Who Owns America's Past? $20.97 (reg. $29.95)

The Smithsonian Institution is currently wrapped in controversy involving an exhibit at its National Museum of African Art, Conversations: African and African Amercian Artworks in Dialogue. Nobody doubts the exhibit’s noble purpose, displaying art with “the power to inspire.” But one-third of the works are from the collection of Bill Cosby and his wife Camille, and the Cosbys donated $716,000 “to assist with the cost.” Moreover, the exhibit is partly about Cosby himself, about his fame, his geniality. Near a display of quilts there is a quote about these quilts telling a story “of life, of memory, of family relationships.” To many people steeped in the 24-hour news cycle, this seems beyond irony.

But we must remember that the Smithsonian Institution was born 170 years ago amid controversy and no little irony. When the bequest of an eccentric Englishman, James Smithson, arrived in Washington with instructions to establish an institution “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men,” it was not clear what he meant. And when the Smithsonian’s first secretary, Joseph Henry, steered the institution into scientific research, he provoked controversy. Others envisioned something quite different—a library, a university, most notably a museum. Henry was totally opposed. A museum, he warned, would squander resources, provoke more controversy, and, worst, render the institution “liable to be brought under direct political influence.”

He was right about that. The irony is that the public has long seen the Smithsonian as primarily a museum, or, rather, a museum complex. And there have been controversies aplenty. Some seemed as much personal as political. The Wright brothers were incensed when the Smithsonian assigned credit for the first “sustained free flight,” totally undeserved, to a man who had once been its secretary. Partisans of Alexander Graham Bell were terribly upset by an exhibit that seemed to deprive Bell of full credit for inventing the telephone, and they threatened to take the matter “to the public and to Congress.” Some controversies were wholly political. A few years ago, a Smithsonian secretary accepted a donation from one Ken Behring with the absurd contingency that there be a halt to exhibits that were “multicultural.” The Smithsonian, said Behring, must do “an American history museum.” Politicization materialized most famously in the 1990s when the National Air and Space Museum was forced to abort a planned exhibit of the Enola Gay, the bomber sent to destroy Hiroshima, along with horrific evidence of what happened on the ground. The airplane was displayed, the rest was not.

Perhaps more shameful in the long run have been episodes that librarians would see as akin to book burning. After the National Portrait Gallery staged Hide/Seek, an exhibit about same-sex intimacy, a video was removed when legislators threatened to “zero out” the Smithsonian’s budget, as had also been threatened with the Enola Gay/atomic bomb affair. Both times, there could be a plea of urgent necessity to capitulate; when an official remarked that “we have to be adept at communication,” he might better have said that “the institution must have its federal dollars or close its doors.” (70 percent of the budget is federal.)

But the Conversations controversy is different from others. No zeroing-out threats, but plenty of outrage. When the exhibit opened, an authorized biography of Cosby had just been published. It was being reviewed in the right places (in the Times Book Review as “wonderfully thorough”) just as Cosby’s rape allegations gained currency. Celebrities wanted their dust-jacket kudos deleted and a paperback was nixed, but there has been little pressure to remove the book from library shelves, to subject it to a figurative or perhaps literal burning. It’s been quite a different tale with the exhibit, with demands to “take it down.” Johnnetta Cole, the museum director and a close friend of the Cosbys, is devastated. So far, however, the institutional response has been that the show must go on, that appearing to celebrate a man accused of serial rape is preferable to “pulling” the exhibit as with the Hide/Seek video—and to harming artists with no responsibility for Cosby’s behavior. As a halfhearted response to critics, there is a sign outside the exhibit saying that the Smithsonian “in no way condones” this behavior, whatever it may have been.

This may be enough to carry the exhibit through to its scheduled closing in January, with no book burning, even in a figurative sense, as with the Hide/Seek video. While commending the Smithsonian’s decision “to stand by the exhibit on its artistic merits,” the Washington Post also expresses hope that the institution has “learned some lessons from this painful experience.” Perhaps it has, but looking back over the Smithsonian’s history, and looking to the emergent power of outsiders who claim a “stake” in the content of exhibits, I’d not be too sure.

Bob Post is the author of Who Owns America’s Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History, which was published by JHU Press. It details the controversies mentioned here and many others.

 

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