The American Historian

Robert C. Post. Who Owns America’s Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Steven Lubar

The Smithsonian finally gets its Washington insider-tells-all memoir, complete with memorandums in the author’s files but not the official archives, off-the record conversations remembered thirty years later, and, of course, some snarky (but discreet) score settling. Current and former Smithsonian employees will immediately check the index. (Disclosure: I’m one of those former employees, and a former colleague of the author, and I’m in the index.)

But the book’s not really an exposé. It’s more a history, and a narrowly focused one. The title is misleading. Post is interested in the history of technology, and so he focuses on activities in the curatorial offices of the fifth floor of the National Museum of American History, and, to a lesser extent, the National Air and Space Museum. He considers only exhibits, not collections or public programs. And it’s not really about “the problem of history” in a general way. Post is interested in museum management, historical exhibitions, and the relation of museum work and academic work.

Post, retired curator at the American History museum (and former editor of Technology and Culture), has a good memory, good archival instincts, and an engaging writing style. He’s written an insider’s history that lets an outsider listen in on staff meetings, read memos, and get a sense of the ways that the Smithsonian made decisions. He was part of that world, knows the people he writes about, and does a good job of explaining how things worked, especially in the years when he was actively engaged at the museum. But he doesn’t bring much perspective or much interest in the bigger issues of museum work more generally. There’s some discussion of ownership of the past, and the “problem” of public historical work, but almost no mention of other museums, or connection to the extensive museum studies literature. Still, there is some valuable history and analysis here, and a rare inside view that will be instructive for history museum studies students and curators.

Post argues that that there have been three styles of history exhibitions at the Smithsonian: collections-driven, neo-traditional displays of objects; story-driven narratives; and postmodern, immersive exhibitions. He documents that all three types have coexisted for almost a century, and credits designers, even more than curators, for the exhibitions that worked well.

The relationship of academic work to museum work is a recurring theme. Post notes the Smithsonian’s desperate eagerness to be like a university, to hire Ivy League Ph.D.’s and faculty consultants, and to push curators to write academic books. This rarely ended well. Related to this is another theme: curators’ resistance to change, or, for that matter, to work on anything other than their own pet projects. Museum administrators can find many how-not-to’s here.

Post covers recent Smithsonian controversies—the Enola Gay exhibit fiasco, increasing reliance on private donors, Secretary Larry Small’s expense accounts—and while he does not add much information, he does provide a useful historical perspective. Post notes the rise of the “stakeholder” in museum discussions, and muses about the difference between, say, the demands of the Air Force Association to control the story of the Enola Gay and the concerns of Native American groups about their representation in Smithsonian museums. He doesn’t have much patience for newfangled ideas about community involvement or shared authority.

Post is too good a historian to write the easy story of decline from the good old days that he occasionally veers toward. Indeed, this book documents a remarkable consistency. The Smithsonian has always negotiated with the rich and powerful who wanted their stories told. Exhibitions were always a combination of “authentic” collections and “postmodern” construction. Museum directors have always fought with curators. Curators have always been focused on their own work. But the Smithsonian has also kept its eye on its mission, “the increase and diffusion of knowledge”—while spending lots of time fighting over just how best to do that.

The Smithsonian, for better and worse, doesn’t change easily. Who Owns the Past? documents the value of the Smithsonian’s distinctive culture—and also the way it has kept the institution from being all that it might be.