A Challenge to
OAH President Pete Daniel’s column in the August 2008 OAH Newsletter generated significant debate and several responses from public historians, printed below along with the President Daniel’s response. Although much of the exchange below deals specifically with the National Museum of American History, the column raises an important issue that relates to all museums, i.e., what is and what should be the role of donors in developing museum exhibits? As museums depend more than ever on private gifts for support and as many donors insist on some influence on how that money is used, public historians have expressed concern on where the line should be drawn between donor influence and historical and professional curatorial standards. This concern is not limited to private donors as government supported museums at the state and federal levels have come under pressure from legislators. A classic example of this was the Congress’s role in the mid-1990s in shaping, in fact, gutting, the National Air and Space Museum exhibit on dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The OAH Newsletter is a good place for American historians to explore this difficult issue of the role of private donors and public supporters in history museums. We welcome your thoughts in the continuation of this important discussion. --eds.
Read responses from:
Pete Daniel’s president’s column in the OAH Newsletter (August 2008) contained several factual errors and misrepresented the outstanding work of his colleagues at the National Museum of American History. His description of exhibition development at the museum is in direct conflict with the basic process that has been in place here for many years. Finally, his critique of donor relations at the museum fails to recognize that all decisions regarding exhibition, programs, and our recent renovation have been driven by the needs of the museum, not the agendas of our donors.
Dr. Daniel’s article is replete with faulty recollections and misinformation. For example, the museum developed the American Presidency exhibit in response to an initiative from Secretary Larry Small, not from any donor. Similarly, no donor “demanded” that the museum install the Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibition. This exhibit fulfilled a long-standing need for a comprehensive treatment of military history. Both exhibits used leading historians as advisors throughout their development and reflect rigorous collections-based and primary source research. Daniel’s statement that I have “pulled the plug” on the introduction to American history exhibit is wrong. We are still plugging away at various issues regarding this exhibit and we will be able to devote our full attention to it following the museum’s reopening in November.
Recent exhibits at our museum, such as Separate is not Equal: Brown v. Board of Education (2004), have explored controversial subjects. Sponsored by corporate, individual, and foundation funding, this exhibit addressed fundamental issues of racial segregation and social justice. Numerous other exhibitions over the last decade have been thoughtful, engaging, and even provocative. Exhibitions on sweatshop labor, the attacks of September 11, and the polio vaccine addressed subjects that challenged and educated visitors on many levels. Moreover, our staff continues to collect in a broad range of categories including human rights, environmental protection, medical technology, and immigration and laborall subjects of considerable debate.
Doing public history is challenging for museums. It involves a process of using and integrating historical evidence into exhibitions and public programs for wide audiences. It is not the work of a solitary curator. Good public history is a true collaboration drawing upon the skills and experience of educators, designers, fabricators, and curators. It also involves the active participation of directors, fundraisers, public information specialists, and other staff who have a vital interest in the support and the success of these initiatives.
Public historians must also, as appropriate, listen closely to the stories, perspectives, and interpretations of the people and communities represented in exhibitions. We certainly need to pay attention to the publicthe people who visit our museums and historic sites. In many respects, public history is a dialogue with many stakeholders. It is truly a democratic enterprise, requiring listening skills as well as good scholarship. Fortunately, most projects proposed by museum staff do pass peer review by meeting the definition of good public history. If they meet obstacles along the way, they keep trying, and most eventually succeed.
Public history depends on private as well as public support. There is no history museum or historic site in the country that can function effectively without a blend of public funding, private fundraising, and revenue generating activity. We are grateful for the funding support we receive from Congress for carrying out our work. We are proud of the record we have in attracting the support of donors who share our commitment to preservation, education, and the overall mission of the Smithsonian. My job as director of the museum is to manage the museum’s donor relationships and ensure good communication with our donors. At the same time, I am also responsible for maintaining the Smithsonian’s high standards. While we are grateful for donor support, the intellectual content of Smithsonian exhibitions remains solely the purview of the museum. In fact, more than one donor has told me that their gift to the Smithsonian would be less valuable if there was any perception that we were compromising our content to promote a donor’s name or product.
Pete Daniel is a respected historian and all of us at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History are proud of the fact that he is the first public historian elected as president of the Organization of American Historians. I certainly respect his right to express his opinion. In his column, he raises important issues that curators and directors deal with daily and are worthy of discussion and debate. I am interested in the opinions of other historians who work with and in museums and other historical organizations regarding the questions of curatorial authority and responsibility, as well as private fundraising and how it might affect museum content. [Top]
As a public historian and former president of the National Council on Public History, I was disappointed to read Pete Daniel’s presidential column in the August 2008 OAH Newsletter. I’m not surprised to hear that there is a struggle over power and control at the Smithsonian, but I wonder if Dr. Daniel’s self-reverential point of view and simplistic reasoning might have strained the credibility of his argument. Do unsavory donors and “pliant directors” really cause all the problems that Daniel alleges? Do those directors “demand exhibits fatally lacking in scholarship?” Does the museum really “strive for mediocrity?” Have Daniel and the curatorial staff continuously gotten “high marks both for scholarship and for integrity,” presumably from everyone but Smithsonian leaders? Have not other museums and historical organizations, not to mention government agencies, been working under the same constraints as the Smithsonian in recent years? Is it not naive to suggest that a government agency operate “above politics?” Is there a bigger picture here, or is this all about Pete Daniel and his enemies in the workplace?
I recall hearing how pleased a number of public history colleagues were when Dr. Daniel was named OAH President. I was happy, too, although I now suspect that we may have been premature in our rejoicing. In my view, public historians work with and for people in and out of the history profession, unlike, say, traditional academics less concerned with their public service responsibilities than narrow, internal publishing and tenure considerations. Dr. Daniel, it seems to me, has chosen to limit his audience to himself and a small group of like-minded colleagues. Even though he draws his paycheck from what some consider a public history organization, I am not sure that, in his column, he offers a good role model for public historians. [Top]
I read with interest, and a sense of déjà vu, Pete Daniel’s column on the problems he sees at the NMAH. Déjà vu in part because, as a long-time colleague of Pete’s, I have heard him tell these stories before, many times. But déjà vu, more importantly, because there is not much new here: This is a plea for an antiquated model of history museum.
While there is much that is valid in Pete’s concerns about the museumthe staff is shrinking, the Smithsonian leadership has led poorlyI worry that Pete has constructed a Golden Age of the museum that never was, and which never worked very well.
Here is his Golden Age model, which segues into a plea for the future:
Curators conceptualized exhibits and had responsibility for scope and content. Unlike a lone historian writing a monograph, a curator headed a museum exhibit team that consulted with academic historians, chose objects that fit the story, explored how best to present relevant public programs, created a dynamic design, and produced a legible script that neither offended experts nor confused eighth graders. Museum practice demands that curators maintain responsibility for all these elements.
While he acknowledges that it is not quite the same as “a lone historian writing a monograph,” a bit further on, we are treated to his “dream” of an exhibit based on his book and his shock that a farm implements dealer would not write him a check to do it.
Pete rues that the federal money that once financed exhibits is gonethough the notion that federal funding would provide the support for the “controversial interpretation” he yearns for may strike some as unlikelybut does not want to accept private funding, either. The end result is fewer exhibitions, fewer curators and other staff, and, eventually, fewer visitors. That is a real worry.
The most recent curatorial success Pete points to is the staff’s killing of an exhibit, on “achievers,” that had money behind it. It is sad that it is not one of the popular or daring shows of the last decade that Pete sees as a model, but rather the rejection of funds to do what could have been an interesting and popular exhibitionan episode that historian Patty Limerick, who was involved in the exhibit, called “a shame.” Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, she noted that many journalists “took the easy formula, left over from the culture wars, and cast a much more complicated situation in tired old terms.”
I fear that this is what Pete Daniel has done in his column. The curator-as-king model that Pete remembers fondly was never very successful, and in many museums it has been replaced by a much more interesting, if more complicated, approach that involves not only curators and academics but also educators, the public, and yes, even donors, as stake-holders in shaping interactive learning experiences that are very different than the academic books and articles so appealing to scholars-turned-curators. A good exhibition will include many points of views, raise questions rather than lecture, let its subjects speak for themselves, and provide an opportunity for visitor participation. It may not necessarily address the cutting-edge scholarship that wins points for academics, but which does not suit a general audience that is not privy to ongoing academic debate.
Curatorial work has changed, and that is a good thing. The NMAH needs to change, too. It should seize opportunities to move on from the “conservative” curatorial practice that Pete so fondly remembers, and which too often means no exhibits at all, to a new curatorial style that acknowledges a more complicated, more inclusive, and more interesting, world of history teaching and learning. [Top]
These letters vary remarkably from the response and support that I have received within the National Museum of American History and from public historians and other scholars throughout the country.
Director Brent Glass’s letter is long on suggesting that I need remedial work in public history and short on relevance to my column. Other than my crediting Kenneth Behring rather than Lawrence Small with inaugurating the Presidency exhibit, Glass’s charges that my column contained “several factual errors” and was “replete with faulty recollections” combine invention and misreading. Instead of engaging in a discussion of donor influence, dealing with the decline of crucial staff, explaining why he has often disregarded the museum’s exhibit process, or offering a vision for the National Museum of American History, Glass hammers on irrelevant boilerplate.
Director Glass misread my remarks about the proposed introductory exhibit. I clearly wrote that he pulled the plug on the introductory team that I worked with, a team that included curators, educators, designers, and project managers. A careful reader would have noticed that I mentioned several other teams that also failed to please him. For over six years, Glass either failed to communicate to these teams a vision of what he expected, the teams failed, or the efforts did not please the funder. Although there are fingerprints, how much influence Kenneth Behring has had on exhibits is problematical because his contract with the Smithsonian has been kept secret. His expectations can be gauged in part by the fact that his architect recently presented the museum with Behring’s own plan for the introductory exhibit, including content and design. A group of staff (including not only curators but educators, designers, and project managers) were asked to review the plan in a meeting convened by the museum on August 12, 2008, and unanimously refused to do so, declaring that even discussing it would be unethical. Instead that group sent a memo to Director Glass pointing out the unethical dimensions of Behring’s intrusion.
It was distressing to read Steve Lubar’s patronizing suggestions that I need a class in remedial curatorship and that I am out of touch with current museum work. He implies that I have learned nothing and forgotten nothing in the quarter century that I have worked in the museum. Lubar invents for me a flawed “golden age” and implies incorrectly that I have never worked with teams that include educators, donors, and other stakeholders. Given his support of the Catherine Reynolds Great Achievers debacle, evidently Lubar favors an exhibit model that rallies curators to legitimize every bad idea that rides in on a wave of money. It does not matter how many excellent historians sign on for such a money-driven rehabilitation project if scholarship is an afterthought. My argument is that museum staff should continue to conceive intellectually challenging and exciting exhibit concepts and then seek donors. I applaud the excellent exhibits that my colleagues have created and sincerely hope that impediments to that creativity are swept away.
All three writers ignored my discussion of Science in American Life and the important and successful negotiation with the American Chemical Society for curatorial voice and historical accuracy. I am mystified by Robert Weible’s cranky and inventive letter with its distressing implications about my reasoning, viewpoint, and enemies. I stand by what I wrote. Glass, Lubar, and Weible might profit from considering a line from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Proverbs for Paranoids, 3: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” [Top]