Mr. Sacco Goes to the Smithsonian

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
The Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

I am currently hanging out in Pennsylvania eagerly anticipating the start of Gettysburg College’s 2014 Civil War Institute Summer Conference, which begins later today. I won a public historian scholarship to be here and am looking forward to five days of listening, learning, reading, socializing, and tweeting. The conference lineup is stellar and I have no doubts the event will be a smashing success.

Yesterday I flew into Baltimore, Maryland, and decided to spend the day in Washington, D.C. prior to the conference. When I was in DC for the first time last year I spent my time walking around the National Mall and taking as many pictures as possible. This time I wanted to actually visit some attractions in the area and spend my time in a slightly more focused fashion. I had never been to any Smithsonian museums before, so I decided to spend most of the day at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Going to the NMAH was a dream come true for me. I stayed at the museum for four hours and visited every gallery and exhibit currently on display, trying my best to see every artifact and read every exhibit label text (I quickly realized the fruitlessness of this endeavor, however). Interestingly enough, my favorite exhibit in the entire museum was “Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000,” located on the first floor of NMAH. Given that my research interests stray far from late-twentieth century food history, this view may be surprising to some. But I found the entire exhibit to be really well-done in terms of exhibit design/room layout, artifact aesthetics, and pithy, concise exhibit labels with well-researched information. As I went through the exhibit I appreciated the ways Smithsonian staff created a balanced interpretation that acknowledged technological developments in food production while at the same time pointing out the potential consequences to labor, capital, and family culture that these technological developments brought with them.

Below is one example of an exhibit label text I think does a nice job of creating a sense of tension in describing “innovation” and “progress” in food production.

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

The only thing I would change here is more explicitly stating who exactly is asking questions about mass production and consumerism. “Many raised questions…” is too vague, in my opinion.

I also enjoyed several exhibits on transportation and technology and the NMAH’s featured “Star Spangled Banner” exhibit, which includes the American flag flown at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, that inspired Francis Scott Key’s writing of the Star Spangled Banner. The “Star Spangled Banner” exhibit did a nice job of focusing on tangible artifacts instead of exhibit labels – the labels were short and complemented rather than dominated the artifacts on display. “Star Spangled Banner” is pretty small compared to other exhibits at the museum, but I think that’s actually a good thing because visitors are not mentally or physically overwhelmed while going through it.

One exhibit I was not impressed with was “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.” Granted, I was running on fumes by the time I got up to see this part of the museum and did not read every label with exacting precision, but overall I found the display to be too celebratory and exceptionalist in its design and interpretation.

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

George Washington’s experiences during the Revolutionary War are interpreted in a way so as to almost deify him (David McCullough’s 1776, among many other works on Washington, shows that Washington made plenty of mistakes as a General during the war), and visitors never get a sense of the Loyalist perspective that was shared by many colonists who sought to maintain their allegiances with the British empire and opposed colonial revolution. The section on World War I is about 1/8 the size of the section on World War II and mostly focuses on technological developments in the types of weapons used during the war. The WWII section is full of nice artifacts but portrays too much of a “good war” vibe for my liking.  In each of these displays I also thought there was not enough focus on explaining how the U.S. military has found itself in so many armed conflicts over time, nor are there any portrayals of the fears, uncertainties, and consequences of life as a soldier. Shirking, draft dodging, PTSD, and suicide don’t make any appearances in these walls.

Within “Price of Freedom” I did like the interpretations of some nineteenth century “Wars of Expansion,” including the Mexican-American War, the Indian Wars of the late 1800s, and the Spanish-American War. I also thought the Civil War section did a nice job of outlining the disagreements that emerged in American society before the war over slavery, states’ rights, and other topics.

I do have one brief theoretical question to ask my readers about the Civil War section, however.

I found it interesting that this section interpreted the experiences of both Union and Confederate soldiers. But when we talk about “Americans at War,” should the experiences of Confederate soldiers be included in this discussion? Are Confederates “Americans”? After all, this war was fought between the United States military and the Confederate military, correct?

To be sure, some white supporters of the Confederacy believed they had a right to secede from the United States precisely because they were the true Americans whose values and beliefs were in tune with the legacy of the founding fathers. But as scholars like Gary Gallagher and Drew Gilpin Faust have demonstrated, many other white Confederate supporters supported a war against the United States because they believed the white South was composed of a stock of Anglos that was culturally distinct from their Northern counterparts. These people believed they were not Americans and that threats against their way of life (i.e. the removal of slavery, increased tariffs, the changing nature of federalism) justified the creation of a sovereign nation separate from the United States.

Is the Confederate war experience worthy of inclusion in a discussion about “Americans at War”?