Tuesday, November 27, 2012

American Stories at the National Museum of American History

The following is an edited excerpt from a longer exhibition review I wrote a couple of weeks ago.  I thought it fit well with some of the recent themes of the blog, so I'm posting it here.  It reflects on the question, how can history museums balance the telling of an easily understandable satisfying narrative with being true to the reality of ambiguous, unpleasant history? 

American Stories fills just one wide room, so a visitor can scan over the entire display from anywhere within it.  The exhibit is intimate.  The deep purple walls and the soft lighting serve both to protect the light-sensitive artifacts and to encourage the visitor to draw up close to the display cases.  Soft music, folk songs, plays in the background.  When entering the exhibit starting on the right, the objects are arranged roughly chronologically, divided into five defining eras in American history.  Both the chronological organization and the disproportionately high percentage of its hundred or so objects that are new scientific inventions, suggest a national story of improvement, of development.  Within each chronological era, the organization of objects into their display cases, and the supporting materials, particularly the collection of varied American faces pictured on the walls, tell the exhibition’s most important national narrative: pride in diversity. 

Antislavery Potholder, from American Stories: 1801-1870, Expansion and Reform
Each display case is organized to cover a single theme.  For example, in the “Expansion and Reform Era: 1801-1870”, a case dealing with the theme of slavery contains three objects: a stoneware jar made by slave David Drake in 1862, an anonymous embroidered potholder with abolitionist embroidery from an unknown date, and a 1833 slave ship manifest from Alexandria, Virginia.  These three items are well chosen to bring three very different voices into dialog on the topic of slavery.  The manifest is the object closest to what a visitor might expect to see in a history of American slavery, and the two other objects add nuance to the narrative: the potholder by highlighting the important role of women in the abolitionist movement, and the stoneware jar by giving the viewer an unexpected glimpse of a slave who was also a potter, whose name and whose art, against all odds, has come down to us through history.  The whole case strikes a balance: like a table on three legs, the story of slavery in America rests equally on the three different objects, and the three different standpoints they represent.  The slavery case is emblematic of the overall structure of the exhibition, which highlights diversity and equilibrium in most of the other cases.  Two other examples: in the America before the Revolutionary War case, Plymouth Rock, that quintessential icon of Euro-American founding mythology, looks across at a string of Wampum beads, evidence that a Native American culture and economy existed before the arrival of the Pilgrims.  In the sports case, the baseball signed by Babe Ruth is balanced by the inclusion of a ball used in 1930 by Sam Streeter, star pitcher of the Negro leagues.  Taken together, these balanced cases seem to say: America is all these perspectives, black, white, man, woman, Indian, European, living together. 

Baseball signed by Babe Ruth, from American Stories: 1900-1945 Emergence of Modern America
A national narrative emphasizing diversity is undoubtedly better than one presenting a narrow white-male perspective.  Unfortunately, by setting objects in such harmoniously balanced proportions, the exhibit minimizes any sense of conflict.  Slavery should be one of the most horrible, discomforting topics to encounter in a museum, yet the balanced happy ending to the story –that the slave gets equal space in the exhibit case, equal treatment with the slave owner, mitigates the sense of discomfort the theme should evoke.  This is not to suggest that the slave should not get a great deal of space in an exhibit that deals with slavery, just that the perfect balance of the exhibition should be shaken up in some way if the exhibit is to communicate any sense of struggle.  The explanatory labels and the words on the introductory banners throughout the exhibit do not shake up the balance; they reiterate the messages of the objects, editing out conflict under a picture of unity.  The banner introducing the first section of the exhibit, “Forming a New Nation: 1776-1801” proclaims, “America’s diverse populations –native peoples, Europeans and Africans– interacted to create a hybrid new world” (emphasis added).  The term “interacted” is so vague and diplomatic that it seems grossly insufficient to describe the devastating conflict, hardship and oppression that dominated the “interactions” between “native peoples, Europeans and Africans”.  A second example: the text explaining the sample of Plutonium-239 reads mostly as a celebratory recounting of successful government sponsorship of scientific advancement.  Only in a far smaller font, in a corner of the label, is there any mention that this “scientific advancement” was in fact part of the creation of two atomic bombs that the US dropped on Japan, killing millions and bringing up dark questions about morality which remain unanswered to this day.  The shortcomings evident in these two examples of text from the exhibit highlight a real challenge.  Museum texts, especially in the NMAH, geared toward family fun rather than high academic inquiry, are most effective at conveying a message to the visitor when they are short. So how can the native peoples, Europeans, and Africans do anything more than “interact”, a single, efficient word that technically covers the whole slew of complex of ways they came together? And how can a curator hope to do justice to the moral complexity of dropping the atom bomb when whole books still cannot fully cover the issue –better perhaps to hardly open up that story at all.  It is evident that there is a friction between the goal of creating an inviting space for families to visit, and the goal of addressing the reality of conflict.  

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