The University Record, April 24, 1995

Public’s access to material should not be curtailed

Public's access to material should not be curtailed

By John Woodford
News and Information Services

Richard Ford, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and chair and professor of anthropology, moderated the symposium's last session, "Museums in a Democratic Society."

Ford invited the nine panelists to consider two questions:

--Should museums in a democratic society attempt to change prevailing ideas and interpretations of the past, or should they merely reinforce long-standing social values?

--Was the Enola Gay controversy a "bellwether for the future of" our museums and a "death knell for museums as we have known them," or was it an isolated event that will have little impact on museum practice?

The panelists generally agreed with George MacDonald, director of Canada's Museum of Civilization, who said that the Smithsonian curators had failed to appreciate that the Enola Gay bomber was a national and world icon and thus an object "fraught with emotions and capable of multiple interpretations" and "easily manipulatable by the news media."

Robert Warner, U-M professor of information and library studies, university historian and former archivist of the United States, said curators should possess a "special sensitivity to the environment they work in." He recalled that when he was at the National Archives, curators canceled a plan to exhibit for the first time the rifle with which Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President Kennedy. Curators had learned that the display would pain the family very much and also "usurp the thrust of the whole exhibition" on the Archive's 50th anniversary.

Thomas J. Kilcine, a retired vice admiral and president of the Retired Officers Association, said that his group enthusiastically supported the fifth script of the Enola Gay exhibit and predicted that "veterans would have accepted it" with pleasure. By that time, however, "special interests" and the news media had publicized an earlier script to cast the exhibition as an attempt by unpatriotic, revisionist historians to degrade the national mission in World War II and dishonor the Armed Services' men and women who served in it.

An early and strong reliance on marketing and public relations strategists would have given Smithsonian curators a forewarning of disaster, maintained panelists Ellsworth Brown, president of The Carnegie in Pittsburgh, and Herman Belz, professor of history at the University of Maryland.

Others disagreed with their assessments. "The public cannot define our responsibility," said Marta de la Torre, director of training at the Getty Conservation Institute, "even though we owe responsibility to them. We don't need media experts, either."

Irene Hirano, executive director of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, said many new museums focused on ethnic groups had sprung up throughout the country "to explore things that have been ignored and to present voices that have been excluded." Such museums, she advised, should strive to "fill out the entire landscape" of the nation's history but avoid shattering that history into ethnic fragments.

The comments of Barbara Clark Smith, curator of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, drew the only applause.

"For democracy to function in more than a formal basis, the citizenry must reflect on the history of their society," she said. "Nothing should curtail the public's access to material upon which to reflect. But there is a difference between formulating your audience as members of the public or as a market. If they are a market, you want to sell them and please them. We [the Smithsonian] are not good at that. We want to talk to the whole person, not just the consumer."

Defending the Enola Gay exhibition, Smith took aim at its designation as a "controversy." Many museums have "treated America as a white male nation," she said, but those who attacked the Enola Gay exhibit "have never said how controversial such exhibits were. No one in Congress has attacked the Smithsonian for presenting the role of women in national politics through the skirts and petticoats of first ladies. For a long time museums have presented a master narrative of history, and when that narrative gets upset, then there is indeed controversy."

U-M Graduate School Dean John H. D'Arms, who also is professor of classical studies and member of the National Endowment for the Humanities, addressed the implications of the Enola Gay episode to historians in his wrap-up comments. It is ironic, he said, that by abandoning such terms as "objectivity" and "truth" as standards for their inquiries contemporary academic historians have exposed themselves to condemnation as "revisionists and ideologues" by politicians, journalists and pressure groups who have picked up the standards of "objectivity" and "truth."

D'Arms added that public historians have done a far better job than academic historians in satisfying the public's interest in national, international, political and military history. Academics tend to dwell on local and social history, he noted, while slighting the questions the public is engaged with, and thus leaving the public with inquiries that often present "superficial answers to complex issues."

D'Arms urged academic historians to address historical questions that attract the public; by doing so, he added, they could not only satisfy the public's desire for a richer understanding of the past, but also "restore their confidence in universities as well."

Other session participants were Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review; Richard Kurin, director of the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies; and Homer A. Neal, U-M vice president for research and a member of the Smithsonian's board of regents.