The University Record, April 17, 1995

PERSPECTIVE: “Presenting History: Museums in a Democratic Society”

PERSPECTIVE: "Presenting History: Museums in a Democratic Society"

By Homer A. Neal, vice president for research

On Wednesday (April 19), the University will cohost with the Smithsonian Institution a major one-day symposium, "Presenting History: Museums in a Democratic Society," in Rackham Auditorium. I would like in this article to provide the University community with some background information on this event, and encourage your participation. Such an overview might be particularly pertinent, inasmuch as news stories in recent weeks have perhaps created the erroneous perception that the symposium will focus solely on the Smithsonian's planned exhibit of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. That planned exhibit, titled "The Last Act," was embroiled in a great deal of public controversy and was cancelled in late January by the Secretary of the Smithsonian.

Although the Symposium will indeed examine aspects of the controversy surrounding the Enola Gay exhibit, it will do so only insofar as they exemplify the larger themes outlined below.

The purpose of the Symposium is to carry out a scholarly discussion of the roles that historical museums and exhibitions play in a democratic society, of the factors that contribute to public controversy surrounding exhibits that provide an interpretation of history, and of the means through which these factors can and should be handled in the planning of an exhibit. It is our hope that such a discussion will begin to help in the articulation of principles that museums might employ as they create, improve or enhance working guidelines and scholarly procedures for the development of historically interpretive exhibits.

At the same time, it is our hope that the symposium will help enhance public understanding of the roles that historical museums and exhibitions play in public life-- including but not limited to their role in assisting us reach a new level of understanding of the history that is being exhibited. Historical museums constitute a key vehicle through which large numbers of people are exposed to history. We hope therefore that the audience for this symposium will come away with a better understanding of the complexities that bear on the creation of interpretive exhibits--complexities that can lead, whether naturally or because of misunderstanding, to controversy of one sort or another. Indeed, we hope that the public will come away with a better appreciation of the manner in which scholarly discourse about history takes place, of the very real public value of that discourse, and of the way in which that discourse does and should bear upon the creation of exhibits.

Recent years have seen a number of public controversies surrounding museum exhibits of various kinds; the Enola Gay exhibit is only the most recent and perhaps most publicized example. A far-from-complete list of other examples might include the "West As America" exhibit in the National Museum of American Art; the "Science in American Life" exhibit in the National Museum of American History; the recreation of a slave auction at Colonial Williamsburg; various controversies surrounding aspects of the Columbus quincentenary; and the tensions in the creation of the Holocaust Memorial Museum. This list suggests that there is a very real need for rational and scholarly discussion of the topic. That leads me, however, also to point out some of the things that this symposium is not intended to do--but which, given either recent history or the context in which the decision to hold a symposium was made, one might understandably believe it might do.

First, inasmuch as this symposium was announced in the context of the cancellation of the National Air and Space Museum's exhibit of the Enola Gay, "The Last Act," it might be supposed that the purpose of the Symposium is to debate yet again the history of the end of the war--i.e., the very issues that themselves were part of the controversy surrounding the Enola Gay exhibit. This is not the case. Although the cancellation of the planned Enola Gay exhibit was the catalyst for this symposium, it is not the sole focus. Our purpose is, rather, to examine the broader themes of controversy and the roles of museums--and in so doing to see how these themes are manifest in the particular case of Enola Gay exhibit.

Second, we note that important issues--the nature of historical understanding, the nature of scholarly interpretation of history, the public uses of history, the complex relationships among the recollection of events by those who participated in them, the recognition and appreciation of events by the public, and the scholarly analysis of history--transcend the narrower topic of historical exhibitions. There is much need for discussion of all of these sorts of issues. And, clearly, we will not be able to have a meaningful discussion of history museums and their roles without touching on some of these transcendent themes. However, from the time that Smithsonian Secretary Heyman announced the symposium in January, it was determined that this symposium would focus on museums--and indeed, it is this focus that provides a key part of the rationale for cosponsorship by the University and by the Institution that maintains some of the nation's premier museums.

The question naturally arises: Why is this symposium being held at the University of Michigan? The first part of the answer to this question is simple: the University is one of the nation's leading institutions of research and scholarship, and as such it has a certain responsibility to facilitate, when it can, the public service of academic discourse on matters of public import. The fact that our University boasts several outstanding museums and a long and strong tradition of excellence in museum practice is further reason for holding this particular symposium here.

As a member of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian, I proposed the idea of a symposium to Secretary Heyman last fall, before the decision to cancel the planned Enola Gay exhibit had been made, as a way of providing a forum for the discussion of issues that were being raised by the controversy surrounding the then still-planned exhibit. Coincident with the Smithsonian decision to cancel the original exhibit, we at the University were requested to host a modified form of the proposed symposium, given that it then seemed more important than ever for issues associated with the exhibit to be reviewed in an academic setting, and that we had earlier indicated an appreciation of the need for such an analysis.

The basic concept for the present Symposium was developed jointly by the Smithsonian and the University, within the parameters set forth by Secretary Heyman when he announced the symposium in conjunction with the cancellation of "The Last Act" exhibit. Given the desire on the part of the Smithsonian to hold this symposium prior to the opening of the revised exhibit (in May), and given the University's desire to have it take place before students departed for summer break, we were placed on a very fast planning schedule. We owe much thanks to the many individuals--here at the University, at the Smithsonian, and around the country--who contributed in one way or another to the planning effort. Although time and logistics constraints did not permit us to consult with all of the conceivably relevant individuals, we have endeavored to gather broad-based input.

The symposium is composed of three sessions: Session 1--Exhibiting Controversial Subjects; Session 2--The Enola Gay Exhibit: A Case Study in Controversy; Session 3--The Role of Museums in a Democratic Society. Each session will take the general form of a panel discussion.

Broadly speaking, the purpose of the first session is to examine the general issues of historical exhibits, the way in which historical interpretation plays into the creation of the exhibits, the ways in which controversy can arise, and the ways in which controversy can be handled and understood. It will begin with a brief lecture by Neil Harris, the Preston and Sterling Morton Professor of History at the University of Chicago, followed by a roundtable discussion moderated by Professor Harris.

The second session attempts to see how those themes might be manifest in the case of the controversy surrounding the Enola Gay exhibit. It will begin with a brief presentation by the moderator, Preble Stolz, professor emeritus of law at the University of California, Berkeley. Each of four panelists will then speak briefly about the controversy from a particular perspective, and the session will conclude with discussion. Among the panelists will be the U-M's distinguished professor of history, John Shy.

The third session will draw on the issues raised in the first two sessions to examine their implications for the still more abstract question of the role of museums in democratic society. It will begin with brief remarks by Professor Richard Ford, chair of the Department of Anthropology; a panel of nine scholars, journalists, curators and others will discuss the issues under Professor Ford's moderation. Robert Warner, professor of history and information and library studies and the former director of the National Archives, will be among the panelists.

The symposium will wrap up with summary remarks by two speakers, including John D'Arms, dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies and vice provost for academic affairs. He will be joined by Richard Kurin of the Smithsonian.

Although I cannot in the space allotted provide further details about panelists or themes, I invite you to contact the Office of the Vice President for Research if you have questions, 763-6048.

Both as a Regent of the Smithsonian and as a member of the University, I look forward to learning more about these important issues. I hope that you will join me.

Presenting History:

Museums in a Democratic Society

April 19, 1995

Rackham Auditorium


The following participants are confirmed:

8:30 a.m.

Welcoming Remarks

James J. Duderstadt, president, University of Michigan

I. Michael Heyman, secretary, Smithsonian Institution

9:00-10:15 a.m.

Session 1: Exhibiting Controversial Subjects

Presenter/Moderator: Neil Harris, Preston and Sterling Morton Professor of History, University of Chicago

Discussants: Betsy Broun, director, National Museum of American Art; Cary Carson, vice president for research, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, professor of performance studies, New York University; Edward Linenthal, professor of religion and American culture, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh; Harold Skramstad, president, Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village

10:45 a.m.-12:45 p.m.

Session 2: The Enola Gay Exhibit: A Study in Controversy

Moderator: Preble Stolz, professor emeritus, University of California School of Law, Berkeley

Discussants: Thomas Crouch, chairman, Aeronautics Department, National Air and Space Museum; Daniel Martinez, park historian, U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, National Park Service; John Shy, professor of history, University of Michigan; Herman S. Wolk, senior historian, Air Force History Support Office, Headquarters, United States Air Force

2:30 p.m.

Session 3: Museums in a Democratic Society

Presenter/Moderator: Richard Ford, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, chair and professor of anthropology, University of Michigan

Discussants: Herman Belz, professor of history, University of Maryland-College Park; Ellsworth Brown, president, The Carnegie, and past president, American Association of Museums; Marta de la Torre, director, Training Program, Getty Conservation Institute; Irene Hirano, executive director and president, Japanese American National Museum; Thomas J. Kilcline, president, the Retired Officers Association, and retired vice admiral, United States Navy; George MacDonald, director, Museum of Civilization, Canada; Rem Rieder, senior vice president and editor, American Journalism Review; Barbara Clark Smith, curator, National Museum of American History; Robert Warner, professor of information and library studies, professor of history, and university historian, University of Michigan, and former archivist of the United States

4:30 p.m.

Wrap-Up Session

John D'Arms, vice provost for academic affairs; dean, Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies; Gerald F. Else Professor of Classical Studies; and professor of history, University of Michigan

Richard Kurin, director, Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies, Smithsonian Institution

5:00--5:15 p.m.

Closing Remarks

Homer A. Neal, vice president for research, University of Michigan, and member, Board of Regents, Smithsonian Institution