Museum Interpretation and the Myth of “Drawing Conclusions” from Facts Alone

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Earlier this month I was provided an opportunity to write a professional book review for the scholarly journal Museums and Social Issues. I was given several choices for books to analyze and chose to review Robert C. Post’s newly published study Who Owns America’s Past?: The Smithsonian and the Problem of History. It is a decision I do not regret at all. Post–a retired Smithsonian curator who worked for the institution from 1973 to 1996–weaves primary source analysis, scholarly synthesis, and personal experiences into a well-research study on how Smithsonian exhibits have been conceived, designed, and interpreted since the institution’s founding in 1846. The book is an important read for museum practitioners tasked with interpreting the past for a public audience and for readers who believe the work of interpreting history is objective and apolitical.

One of the most important aspects of Post’s study is his analysis of the Smithsonian’s interpretation of historical events following the Enola Gay controversy of the mid 1990s (readers unfamiliar with the controversy can start with a brief Wikipedia entry and professor Edward J. Gallagher’s website). The exhibit controversy itself was part of a larger conflict of values and disagreements about divisive issues within American society during the 1990s that is frequently referred to as the “culture wars.” Curators working on the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum attempted to ask questions about why atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945, leading to cries of leftist “historical revisionism” and an unnecessary politicization of history by the institution’s curators. Speaking for many disaffected Americans, House Speaker Newt Gingrich remarked that “Americans are sick and tired of being told by some cultural elite that they ought to be ashamed of their country.” The Smithsonian, argued Gingrich, had become “a plaything for left-wing ideologues.”

Post points out, however, that politicians on both sides took umbrage with the Smithsonian’s efforts at providing museum audiences with an interpretation of history after Enola Gay. Liberal Senator Diane Feinstein–herself a history major in college–echoed the concerns of Gingrich, Ted Stevens, and other conservatives by questioning the notion of interpreting history, arguing that her classes at Stanford taught her that history “was essentially a recitation of fact, leaving the reader to draw their own analysis” (268). Instead of trying to impart “messages” to museum audiences, shouldn’t exhibits be framed in an “objective” mode that allowed visitors to make up their own minds?

A new, redesigned Enola Gay exhibit was completed in 2003 at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Fairfax County, Virginia (Pictured above), an annex of NASM. Post asserts that planes at the Udvar-Hazy Center–more than eighty of them, including a McDonnell Phantom, a Grumann Intruder, a Dash-80, and the Enola Gay itself–did not require much in terms of “enhancement,” i.e. interactive displays or exhibit text. At the Center, “dramatic artifacts were everywhere, and the only thematic touch was the lightest imaginable, a few topical groupings,” according to Post (263). Visitors, it was believed, would be emotionally moved and inspired to “make up their own minds” about these historical artifacts without much interpretation.

Post provides the exhibit text for the redesigned Enola Gay exhibit at the Udvar-Hazy Center on page 264 of Who Owns America’s Past:

Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay

Boeing’s B-29 Superfortress was the most sophisticated propeller-driven bomber of World War II, and the first bomber to house its crew in pressurized compartments. Although designed to fight in the European theater, the B-29 found its niche on the other side of the globe. In the Pacific, B-29s delivered a variety of aerial weapons: conventional bombs, incendiary bombs, mines, and two nuclear weapons.

On August 6, 1945, this Martin-built B-29-45-MO dropped the first atomic weapon used in combat on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, Bockscar (on display at the U.S. Air Force Museum near Dayton, Ohio) dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. Enola Gay flew as the advance weather reconnaissance aircraft that day. A third B-29, The Great Artiste, flew as an observation aircraft on both missions.

– Transferred from the U.S. Air Force

Post continues by stating that “this spare text was followed by the specs: wingspan, length, weight, speed, horsepower, ordnance, armaments . . . the size of the crew (twelve men) and manufacturer (Martin Co., Omaha, Neb., 1945), and finally a mysterious unexplained number: A19500100000.”

No interpretations . . . just the facts. Just the way Gingrich, Feinstein, et. al. wanted it. What did Post think of this exhibit label? I quote him at length (taken from 264-265):

A handout for the press preview and the opening claimed, “this type of label is precisely the same kind used for the other airplanes and spacecraft in the museum. Its intent is to tell visitors what the object is and the basic facts concerning its history. Over the twenty-seven years of its existence, the museum has carefully followed an approach which offers accurate descriptive data, allowing visitors to evaluate what they encounter in the context of their own points of view.”

NASM could have done better. With some of its artifacts, there had been no single “approach” over the years, nothing of the sort . . . With the Enola Gay at the Udvar-Hazy, it was remarkable how unhelpful–how unfactual–the label was, even on its own terms. Why did it find its niche in an unexpected theater of war? Of what tactical import were the speed and power? The range? The pressurized compartments for the crew? Why no defensive weaponry? How did it happen that a Boeing plane came from a different manufacturer in Omaha? How many B-29s were there, anyway, and how much did they cost?

Nobody could spend any time in the vicinity of the Enola Gay without realizing that people did want to know more, often quite a bit more, and–unless they happened to be with a forthcoming docent–they did not know how to fill in the blanks.

Indeed. By stripping the Enola Gay of its historical context, its human agency, its politics, its deadly impact, and even its facts, the Smithsonian left its visitors without any substance in which to make up their minds about. Nevertheless, the initial controversy in the 1990s and the Enola Gay’s subsequent re-purposing in the early 2000s point to the enormous challenge of creating museum exhibits that meet the needs of different groups and identities in a postmodern society, exhibits that profess to speak on behalf of all Americans. Should the Smithsonian deliver only facts and answers, or should they also include questions, messages, and interpretations as well? If the institution has an obligation to educate and not just celebrate, shouldn’t an effort be made to provide causes, context, and consequences to help visitors “make up their minds” about the tough stuff of history?