Smithsonian Institution: Control Over Exhibit Design and Content
Once again, the historical profession has been drawn into the issue of professional standards and historical exhibits in museums. In its report to the OAH executive board at the annual meeting in Los Angeles last April, the Public History Committee requested the organization's governing body to address the issue of large donors' influence on museum exhibits, particularly at the Smithsonian Institution. The board did not feel it had enough information to make a statement in April, but it continued its discussion electronically and in June entered the fray with a letter to the Smithsonian Board of Regents.
Concern about developments at the Smithsonian began with the appointment of Fannie Mae's former president Lawrence Small as Secretary of the Smithsonian. Unlike previous secretaries, Small came from a business background rather than from the academic or museum world and quickly made use of his skills in securing large contributions. West Coast developer Kenneth Behring gave $80 million in return for which he will play a significant role in redesigning the National Museum of American History (NMAH)'s core exhibit space and have his name on the building. At present, according to one Washington historian, "visitors from all over the world view a tacky blue banner that is draped over the front of the American history museum with the words ‘Behring Center’ fluttering in the breeze." Coming on the heels of the Behring gift was a $38 million donation by Catherine Reynolds to develop a major exhibit hall at NMAH honoring American achievers. The donor’s contract stipulated that of the fifteen American achievers represented in the exhibit, the Reynolds Foundation would select ten and Smithsonian Institution would select five. In various interviews Reynolds suggested names of individuals she would consider for the exhibition, including Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart, Dorothy Hamill, and Sam Donaldson.
In its letter of 7 June to the Smithsonian Board of Regents, the OAH executive board called on the regents to reconsider their agreement with Reynolds saying that it was troubled by recent reports from Smithsonian staff, the media, and other observers about the role of private donors in shaping the exhibits at NMAH. These reports, said the board, "suggest that the Smithsonian may be taking steps that will erode its legislative mandate, its high professional standards, and ultimately the public trust." The board urged that "any Hall of Fame exhibit be provided a historical context in keeping with the mission of the NMAH."
OAH also reasserted the History Exhibit Standards that it approved in April 2000. These standards, which have been adopted by other major historical organizations as well, "highlight the crucial role of professional historians and other expert museum staff in warranting the historical and intellectual integrity of material presented in exhibits." The letter concluded by stressing the NMAH’s obligation to uphold these exhibit standards. "It is the responsibility of trained museum staff to ensure that the exhibit meets the highest scholarly criteria, represents competing points of view, and reflects the diversity of the community that the museum serves."
Following OAH’s lead, a number of other historical and museum organizations (including the National Council on Public History, American Historical Association, American Association for State and Local History, and American Studies Association) sent letters to the Smithsonian expressing similar concerns. Although the Regents never responded to the OAH letter, NMAH director Spencer Crew, National Portrait Gallery Director Marc Pachter, and Smithsonian Director of Operations James Bruns replied. Crew and Pachter assured OAH "that we and our colleagues at the Smithsonian enthusiastically embrace the History Exhibit Standards adopted by OAH. . . . We can say without reservation that the exhibition and programs undertaken by our museums in conjunction with this gift will conform to those standards." Although Bruns criticized OAH for relying on media accounts and the testimony of unidentified NMAH staff, he assured OAH members that "the Smithsonian has every intention of adhering to the highest standards of scholarship and intellectual integrity in the development of its 'Spirit of Achievement' exhibition. The exhibition standards adopted by your organization’s executive board in April 2000 will be among the guidelines that are used by the staff in the creation of an accurate, professional exhibition."
The Smithsonian Institution has now gone on record that it supports the History Exhibit Standards. It is up to professional historians and museum curators to ensure that those standards are observed during the exhibition's development. For the full text of the OAH letter to the Smithsonian Board of Regents and the replies of Crew, Pachter, and Bruns, point your browser to <http://www.oah.org/announce/smithsonian/release.html>.