Museum faulted on sweatshop exhibit Smithsonian defends show against textile industry objections

September 25, 1997|By new york times news service

WASHINGTON - Another dispute has broken out in Washington over a museum exhibition that touches on a controversial subject, this time over whether a show on sweatshops can be presented in an objective manner.

The fight has been taken up in Congress and on the Smithsonian Institution's governing board.

The sweatshop exhibition, which is to open in April at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, will be mounted as planned, its curators say, despite decisions by associations of clothing manufacturers and retailers not to participate.

By contrast, a Library of Congress show on slavery was canceled last year when employees objected to its depiction of slaves. Before that, a show at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum on the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan created such a dispute that the show was redesigned and the museum's director was forced to resign.

This time, however, "I don't think we are going to make any major changes," said Martha Morris, deputy director of the museum.

Harry Rubenstein, a co-curator of the exhibition, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Dialogue on American Sweatshops, 1820 to Present," said it would include artifacts from old sweatshops and a re-creation of the notorious sweatshop found recently in El Monte, Calif.

Views in Congress

One opponent of the show, Rep. Sam Johnson, a Texas Republican who was appointed to the Smithsonian's board of regents by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, complained to the regents that the exhibition was faulty because it focused on the negative aspects of the apparel industry.

"One of the reasons Newt appointed me was to keep the historical revisionism under control," Johnson said. Each house of Congress names three members to the board of regents; by tradition, the majority party names two and the minority party one.

Opposing Johnson is Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who is not a regent but has made a cause of combating inhumane working conditions. He conducted hearings on sweatshops like the one discovered in El Monte, a suburb of Los Angeles, where laborers from Thailand were kept in virtual slave conditions.

Miller has gathered signatures from 46 House members on a petition to I. Michael Heyman, the secretary, or chief officer, of the Smithsonian, urging that the exhibition go on as planned.

Johnson said the revisionism he was trying to block first came to his attention in the atomic bomb exhibition, which featured the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, the Enola Gay.

'A little adamant'

Johnson said that the Smithsonian curators were "being a little adamant about this" but that there would nonetheless be some reworking of the display. That was disputed by several others who attended the private regents meeting.

Saying that the exhibition would not be canceled, Heyman added, "I have a great deal of respect for Sam Johnson, but I disagree with him on this issue."

Another member of Congress who serves as a Smithsonian regent, Rep. Esteban Torres, a California Democrat, said that when he heard Johnson's objections, "I interceded immediately and said I wanted to commend the curators and historians."

"It is balanced," said Torres, who was a labor leader before being elected to Congress and was appointed a Smithsonian regent by Rep. Richard Gephardt, the House minority leader. "We can't sweep things under the rug because they are controversial."

Torres said that he was supported by at least two other regents, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat, and Hanna H. Gray, the former president of the University of Chicago.

Moynihan confirmed Torres' account: "I said, 'Look, I don't know any of the details of this matter, but it is wholly appropriate to have exhibitions dealing with the beginning of industrialization in the United States, in this case the manufacturing of clothing.' "

Pub Date: 9/25/97

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