U.S. museums are locked in a battle for truth Museums pressured to appease critics

February 25, 1996|By Ted Gup

The Smithsonian Institution, America's national museum, is observing its 150th anniversary with the largest traveling exhibition in U.S. history.

But even as the museum publicly celebrates, many in its curatorial and scholarly ranks privately mark the occasion with grave apprehension. The Smithsonian, and countless other museums across the country, face one of the most insidious threats in their history as political correctness, hypersensitivity to issues of race and diversity and an emboldened far right threaten to neuter them. A new and rigid orthodoxy is taking shape in which intellectual debate is anathema, and self-censorship ever more common.

At issue is nothing less than the basic mission of museums -- whether their purpose is to provoke thought and independent reflection about society and art, or to slavishly celebrate national accomplishments, even if it means sanitizing history, lest a single soul be offended. Increasingly, they are moving toward this latter role, regressing to the time when museums were either little more than reliquaries of antiquity or the cultural equivalent of cheerleaders.

To see the new orthodoxy's repressive powers, you only need to look at Washington's twin titans of culture, the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. Despite its heft and prestige, the Smithsonian is particularly vulnerable to pressure because of its unique role as "the National Museum." It has concluded it can ill afford to alienate any segment of the population -- especially when more than three-fourths of its $480 million budget last year depended on the beneficence of a politically conservative Congress.

It is still too early to measure the fallout of last year's Enola Gay exhibition, but it could well be the Smithsonian's defining event -- with far-reaching implications for other cultural institutions. That controversy culminated with veterans' groups enlisting the support of Congress and coercing the museum to reduce a planned exhibit on one of history's epochal moments to a technical treatment on the restoration of a single aircraft. The head of the Air and Space Museum lost his job, and the museum, much of its credibility.

Soon after, an exhibition titled "Science in American Life" came under attack for reputedly failing to pay adequate homage to the blessings of scientific advancement. The museum could not do enough to accommodate its critics. Then the Smithsonian announced it was scrapping plans for an exhibit on the Vietnam War. Too controversial. By then, curators everywhere were diving for cover and, like other Washington institutions, the Smithsonian had become just another target of special-interest groups.

Today, any potentially provocative exhibit is thoroughly "vetted." But the real question is whether the Smithsonian can reassert its franchise to interpret and be willing to risk the wrath of those who hold its purse strings on Capitol Hill.

Museum officials contend that the recent contretemps have not made an intellectual eunuch of the Smithsonian. But don't look for controversial exhibitions any time soon. "This may be the time to duck and let the wave wash over me and eventually let my head come back up," said one curator. The museum community is looking for reassurances that scholarship and art will be defended and controversy not "verboten." More pernicious than the Smithsonian's vetting is the now rampant self-censorship.

It may be more than coincidence that, for the first time in its history, the Smithsonian is not headed by a scientist but a lawyer. I. Michael Heyman has gotten high marks for management, for calming -- some say appeasing -- a disgruntled Congress and for aggressively courting corporate donors. But his vision and courage remain unproven.

Last month, the Library of Congress, too, fell prey to the new orthodoxy: Its exhibition, "Back of the Big House," depicting slave life on Southern plantations was hastily dismantled on opening day. A handful of staffers, many of them African-Americans, complained the show was offensive. Never mind that it had been vetted by a committee that included blacks; had been viewed at a traditionally black college without incident, and would subsequently be approved for display at Washington's Martin Luther King Jr. Library. Indeed, the exhibition appears to have been a casualty of longstanding racial tensions within the library, not the historical portrayal of slavery. "A nonstory," sniped Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, oblivious to what was at stake.

Earlier in the month, the Library of Congress had killed its planned exhibit on Sigmund Freud. Officially, budget constraints were blamed. Unofficially, it was opposition from those questioning Freud's place in the psychoanalytic firmament.

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