Historical Revisionism

Guest post by Robert C. Post

What do Smithsonian curators do? For that matter, what is a curator? The dictionary says a curate is a clergyman, and in a museum a curator cares for artifacts and sees to their interpretation when they are displayed. “Keeper” is the British term, but in the U.S. that word calls up diverse occupations: zookeeper, goalkeeper, jail keeper. Although the Smithsonian famously lost George Washington’s false teeth, the curatorial care of artifacts is rarely put to question. But interpreting what is put on display, when curators draw on their training as historians, that’s something else. Often it may seem that displayed artifacts are not interpreted at all; they are simply identified. But a simple identification amounts to an affirmation and is thus a covert interpretation: “This artifact is worthy of display; it deserves your attention.”

PostWhere the interpretation is overt, artifacts attract and sometimes invite controversy. The Smithsonian’s most infamous controversy involved the display and interpretation of the Enola Gay, the B-29 deployed to destroy Hiroshima with an atom bomb. Curators at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) planned to interpret the Enola Gay partly in the context of the death and destruction it wrought. They were even going to address the disputed necessity of dropping the bomb in the first place. Many veterans and partisans of the military aviation community believed that theirs was not a valid interpretation at all but rather a “countercultural morality pageant.” Through their allies in Congress, they forced the Smithsonian to reverse course. The airplane was displayed solely as a technological marvel whose mission hastened the end of World War II.

Much of the controversy was framed in terms of historical revisionism, an expression that means one thing to professional historians and something else to nearly everyone else. On the one hand, it means departure from the truth of what “really happened” in order to serve ideological ends. It means deliberate distortion. On the other hand, it means examining events in light of new concerns or new evidence. For example, the term became commonplace among historians of World War I as documents were made available that revealed the causes of the war to have been exceedingly complex, leading to calls for “revision” of the Treaty of Versailles, which had placed blame solely on Germany and its allies.

Most historians believe that knowledge is provisional—that, in the words of MIT’s John Dower, “critical inquiry and responsible revision remain the lifeblood of any serious intellectual enterprise.” Dower adds that this “is a daunting task to try and convey to the public.” And indeed it is. When NASM curators sought to convey a sense that the bombing of Hiroshima was an event fraught with moral ambiguity, and may not even have been “necessary,” they were accused of misrepresenting the truth to suit their left-wing proclivities. To the public at large, the term revisionism became nothing more than an expression of opprobrium, and the expression was later used—irony of ironies—to advance the case for invading Iraq. After inspectors reported finding no weapons of mass destruction, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice branded their reports as “revisionist history.” Many historical events can be interpreted in different ways by deploying different facts, and one or another of these interpretations may be termed revisionist. But Bush and Rice had no facts on their side, none at all, and merely deployed the word as a shield against actual facts.

At NASM, the curators were accused of ignoring truth and denying the facts, but actually they were just choosing among narrative possibilities: Different facts, different stories. Whenever there are such possibilities, the question becomes this: What is the proper function of our National Museum? Is it simply to celebrate what most Americans are most proud of, typically what they “learned in school?” Or is it to revise what they learned and to educate them in light of history’s ambiguity and complexity? Taking into consideration the political dangers revealed in the Enola Gay controversy, this is certainly a daunting task, but in my view it is worth every effort, given the truth of these lines from George Orwell’s 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”

Robert C. Post, now curator emeritus, was employed by the Smithsonian for twenty-three years, beginning in 1973. He was responsible for several technological collections and story-driven exhibits. His latest book, Who Owns America’s Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, combines information from hitherto-untapped archival sources, extensive interviews, a thorough review of the secondary literature, and considerable personal experience. The Society for the History of Technology awarded Post the Leonardo da Vinci Medal, its highest honor.