D. Recommendations to Assure Appropriate Balance in Exhibit
Themes and Content
There are many obviously relevant topics that seem to be underrepresented
at NMAH. Among these (as noted in Section II) are: religion, immigration,
slavery, America's westward expansion, Asian and Hispanic cultural influences,
education, the role and mechanisms of capital formation -- and a long
list of other subjects that are worthy candidates for inclusion. In addition,
there are many themes that would seem to be central to America's self-concept,
but underrepresented at NMAH. Obvious examples among these are: the struggle
for freedom, the expansion of democracy, the quest for equal opportunity,
and the incentives for enterprise and innovation. These have, of course,
had different meanings at different times and for different groups. But
it is exactly such differences that may help deepen the understanding
of their meaning and importance.
One might easily imagine reorganizing NMAH in ways that would give greater
emphasis to any or all of these underrepresented topics and themes. Indeed,
there is a limitless number of ordering frameworks that might be applied
to the Museum. That fact does not justify a decision to avoid choosing
a clear ordering framework of one sort or another. It simply means that
no choice will be wholly satisfactory. A well-ordered framework is bound
to seem more coherent than a set that is random or the result of ill-conceived
compromise and accommodation. And NMAH would be well advised to settle
on such a well-ordered framework soon. But coherence is not the only relevant
test. Because NMAH is inescapably involved with sensitive issues of national
identity, and because NMAH is a national museum, it must assure
that its process of developing themes and topics is perceived as having
legitimacy. It must also assure that the product of its choosing meets
certain tests of balance.
This may be particularly important in the current context. Public controversy
has arisen about whether NMAH, having allegedly become inattentive to
traditional concepts of American strength, may now be entering a process
of over-correction under the alleged influence of recent donors. Such
controversy is understandable. In some degree, it may be healthy. But
it is obviously important to assure that, in working through such issues,
NMAH and the Smithsonian should not lose the special trust and respect
they have earned in their distinguished and celebrated history. It is
with this objective in view that the Commission has decided it is important
to articulate a set of guiding principles for developing themes and topics.
Before turning to these, it is important to emphasize three points of
- NMAH is well aware of the need to be guided by principles. In 2001,
with the prospect of major new gifts in view, NMAH undertook an internal
planning process that resulted in a plan titled "Transforming the
National Museum of American History" (Appendix F). In the Commission's
view, this plan did not go far enough to bring a defensible coherence
to NMAH. As it should, the Museum continues to modify this plan. But
it is noteworthy that the start of its "Transforming" plan
(Section 2) articulates four principles -- stating that NMAH's presentation
of American history must be informed, complex, diverse, and accessible.
The Commission would affirm these principles.
- NMAH curators are well aware of the general requirements for good
exhibits. A statement prepared for the Commission on behalf of a majority
of the curators reads in part as follows: "[F]or us, exhibits should
be educational and they should rely on objects. The subject matter is
history, and it should be good history. We don't believe that there
is much point in doing exhibits without these characteristics. But of
course we also want people to come to see the exhibits and to learn
from them. Therefore they need to be attractive and engaging. . . .
There are some general rules: clear theme, uncluttered presentation,
good lighting, easily-understood text. These are rules that can be broken,
but only for good reasons. . . . It is important to note that we should
not expect, or even want, every exhibit to appeal to all of our visitors.
We should have diversity to match the diversity of needs of those that
come through our doors. . . ." The Commission would affirm this
- The four major new NMAH exhibits that have been funded and are being
developed present interesting opportunities and serious challenges.
(Please see Appendix G for NMAH's summary descriptions of these exhibits.)
Not least among the challenges is meeting the tests of balance discussed
further below. This is especially important given recent public controversy.
Yet it is important also to note that if the tests of balance are applied,
the exhibits that are actually moving forward should prove to merit
less controversy than early publicity suggested. Two of the new exhibits
("America on the Move" and "The Price of Freedom")
do not treat new subjects; they promise to be major upgrades and renewals
of exhibits that have long been popular at NMAH. A third exhibit, "For
Which It Stands," has been previewed by the Commission. It promises
to be well balanced, highly engaging, and professionally rooted in sound
historical scholarship. A fourth major new exhibit was originally conceived
as a presentation of American heroes. That conception has been replaced
by the Introductory Exhibit recommended by the Commission and developed
by NMAH. And the exhibit that was most controversial, focused on achievement
and recent American achievers, is no longer planned. Differences between
the Museum and the donor over the extent to which the exhibit should
be historically rooted and the extent to which the donor should be involved
in its development led to a withdrawal of funding for this exhibit.
That said as a matter of perspective, it is nonetheless the case that
NMAH is entering a challenging period of major change -- not only with
the four new exhibits that are funded, but also with others that remain
to be planned and financed. In this period of transformation and controversy,
it is especially important that NMAH be perceived to be -- and in fact
be -- guided by principles of the type that are recommended here under
the general heading: balance.
RECOMMENDATION (11) re: BALANCE IN AND AMONG EXHIBITS
IN MAKING CHOICES ABOUT THE CONTENT OF INDIVIDUAL EXHIBITS AND THE SET
OF NMAH EXHIBITS TAKEN AS A WHOLE, NMAH MUST STRIKE A REASONABLE BALANCE
IN MEETING EACH OF THE FOLLOWING CHALLENGES:
- (11-a) NMAH MUST IMPOSE A COMPREHENSIBLE SENSE OF INTELLECTUAL
ORDER WHILE AVOIDING GROSS SIMPLIFICATION OR INATTENTION TO IMPORTANT
SCHOOLS OF HISTORICAL THOUGHT.
- (11-b) NMAH MUST STRIVE TO BE FAIR, ACCURATE, AND SENSITIVE
TO AMERICA'S TRADITIONAL VALUES AND ASPIRATIONS AS WELL AS THE REALITY
AND DIVERSITY OF AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.
- (11-c) NMAH MUST NOT ONLY BE ATTENTIVE TO DIFFERING SCHOOLS
OF HISTORICAL THOUGHT AND INTERPRETATION. IT MUST ALSO USE THESE DIFFERENCES
AS ADDITIONAL MEANS TO ENGAGE VISITORS' INTEREST.
- (11-d) NMAH MUST FAIRLY AND ACCURATELY TREAT ISSUES OF RACE,
ETHNICITY, GENDER, CREED, AND OTHER DIMENSIONS OF DIVERSITY AS INEXTRICABLY
ENTWINED WITH THE AMERICAN HISTORICAL EXPERIENCE, WHILE REDUCING POSSIBLE
TENDENCIES TOWARD AN ARTIFICIAL SEPARATION OR SUB-CATEGORIZATION OF
GROUPS WITHIN OR AMONG EXHIBITS. Note: If sufficient space is available
(see Recommendation 14-c below), the Museum may proceed with a combination
of large exhibits with broad historical sweep, in which issues of diversity
are treated as an integral part; and smaller, specialized exhibits in
which related sub-topics are also appropriately treated. This combination
approach has merit. But Recommendation (11-d) is intended to apply whether
the Museum uses the combination approach or moves mainly toward exhibits
with broad historical sweep.
- (11-e) IN PURSUING THESE ELEMENTS OF BALANCE, NMAH SHOULD
NOT MERELY SEEK COMPROMISES THAT SEEM TO RECONCILE THE INTERESTS OF
CONFLICTING PARTIES. NMAH SHOULD SEEK TO ASSURE THAT ITS RESOLUTIONS
OF ISSUES OF BALANCE MEET THE HIGHEST STANDARDS OF SCHOLARSHIP. Note:
The processes of striking a balance often run the risk of finding resolution
in facile compromise or mere combinations of this and that. Clearly,
NMAH must avoid this tendency. It must pursue the more difficult course
of working its way toward resolutions that meet these general tests
of balance while, also, meeting tests of moral, aesthetic, and intellectual
integrity -- and achieving necessary clarity and force.
RECOMMENDATION (12) re: DONOR RELATIONS AND PUBLIC TRUST
RECOGNIZING THAT PUBLIC AND PRIVATE DONORS WILL CONTINUE TO HAVE ESSENTIAL
ROLES TO PLAY IN HELPING ADVANCE THE NMAH MISSION, AND RECOGNIZING THAT
NMAH HAS SPECIAL TRUST OBLIGATIONS, WHICH DERIVE FROM ITS STATUS AS A
NATIONAL MUSEUM, THE COMMISSION RECOMMENDS THE FOLLOWING WITH REGARD TO
THE MANAGEMENT OF RELATIONSHIPS WITH DONORS:
- (12-a) VISION AND PLAN. NMAH, ITS BOARD, AND ITS NEW DIRECTOR
SHOULD HAVE WELL IN MIND THAT, IN THE PURSUIT OF FUNDING, NMAH WILL
GAIN POWER AND APPEAL BY DEVELOPING AND ARTICULATING A COMPELLING VISION
AND PLAN. THAT IS, THE MUSEUM'S EFFECTIVENESS IN ATTRACTING DONORS ON
THE MUSEUM'S PREFERRED TERMS WILL BE INCREASED TO THE EXTENT THAT THESE
TERMS ARE CLEAR IN ADVANCE. IN GENERAL, SOLICITATION OF GRANTS SHOULD
FOLLOW THE DEVELOPMENT OF SUBSTANTIVE CONCEPTS AND PLANS. Note: While
Museum plans may be adapted where donors (or other outside parties)
have ideas with merit, the burden of leadership in developing a compelling
vision and plan is the Museum's. In any case, NMAH substantive staff
should be closely involved from the outset in the development and refinement
of exhibit concepts.
- (12-b) SMITHSONIAN CONTROL. THE SMITHSONIAN AND NMAH SHOULD
CONTINUE -- AND GUARD AS FUNDAMENTAL -- THE POLICY THAT RESERVES TO
THE MUSEUM FINAL CONTROL AND RESPONSIBILITY FOR ALL MATTERS OF EXHIBIT
CONTENT. THEY SHOULD ALSO ASSURE THAT THE INSTITUTIONAL COMMITMENT TO
THIS PRINCIPLE IS CLEARLY UNDERSTOOD BOTH INTERNALLY AND EXTERNALLY.
- (12-c) SMITHSONIAN NEGOTIATING ADVANTAGE. WHILE RECOGNIZING
THE SPECIAL IMPORTANCE OF DONORS IN A CONTEXT OF RESOURCE SCARCITY,
THE SMITHSONIAN AND NMAH SHOULD REMAIN MINDFUL THAT THEIR SPECIAL NATIONAL
STATUS, ENORMOUS VISITORSHIP, AND REPUTATION FOR EXCELLENCE GIVE THEM
A COMPARATIVE ADVANTAGE IN NEGOTIATING WITH POTENTIAL SPONSORS, AND
IN RESISTING THE GENERAL TENDENCY TOWARD COMMERCIALIZATION. THE SMITHSONIAN
SHOULD NOT AND NEED NOT BE REDUCED TO LOWEST-COMMON-DENOMINATOR STANDARDS.
Note: There are lines beyond which gifts said to be charitable in their
motivation look more and more like promotion and advertising; and in
the world of charitable giving generally, those lines are frequently
crossed. By resisting this general tendency, the Smithsonian not only
helps preserve its credibility; it also helps increase the prestige
value of sponsors' discrete association with the Museum.
- (12-d) PUBLIC INFORMATION. WITH AN EYE TOWARD REDUCING WHAT
MIGHT OTHERWISE BE PUBLIC MISINFORMATION, AND INCREASING PUBLIC CONFIDENCE
IN THE REALITY OF SMITHSONIAN CONTROL AND THE QUALITY OF SMITHSONIAN
DECISION MAKING, THE SMITHSONIAN AND NMAH SHOULD:
(i) REVIEW AND STRENGTHEN THEIR POLICIES FOR THE TIMELY PUBLIC RELEASE
OF INFORMATION DESCRIBING THE CONCEPTS AND CONTENTS OF PLANNED EXHIBITS,
ALONG WITH RELEVANT SUMMARY INFORMATION CONCERNING ASSOCIATED CONTRACTUAL
(ii) IN ANTICIPATION OF THE RELEASE OF INFORMATION ABOUT FUNDING SOURCES,
HELP DONORS PREPARE FOR THE UNUSUAL (OFTEN UNFAMILIAR) DEGREE AND CHARACTER
OF PUBLIC ATTENTION THAT ASSOCIATION WITH A NATIONAL MUSEUM ENTAILS.
- (12-e) BALANCE. GIVEN THE PUBLIC CONTROVERSY THAT HAS DEVELOPED
WITH RESPECT TO SOME RECENTLY FUNDED OR PROPOSED EXHIBITS, AND GIVEN
THEIR IMPORTANCE IN THE COMING STAGE OF THE MUSEUM'S DEVELOPMENT, SPECIAL
CARE SHOULD BE TAKEN TO ASSURE THAT THE TESTS OF BALANCE RECOMMENDED
HEREIN ARE APPLIED IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE NEW EXHIBITS.
- (12-f) NEW DIRECTOR. THE CHALLENGES OF MANAGING DONOR RELATIONS
AND RELATIONS WITH BOTH INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL CONSTITUENCIES SHOULD
BE UNDERSTOOD TO REQUIRE EXTRAORDINARY SKILL ON THE PART OF A NEW NMAH
DIRECTOR -- A FACT WHICH (ALONG WITH MANY OTHER IMPORTANT REQUIREMENTS)
MUST BE TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT IN THE CURRENT SEARCH. Note: These challenges
are always demanding. In the current context, however, there is a special
need for the new Museum Director to build and sustain the trust of Museum
professionals, donors, and the public. (See related Recommendations
(16-c) and (17-c), Section III.F.)
Principles that may guide the planning of exhibits and the management
of donor relations are important, but abstract. They take on more concrete
meaning as they are translated into real exhibits occupying real floor
space. On the way to that reality, the development of specific exhibit
floor plans is an obviously important step.
NMAH's floor plan for current exhibits (Appendix C) must be transformed.
That is partly because the current layout is widely viewed as unsatisfactory,
and partly because new exhibits must be accommodated. With the need for
transformation in mind, NMAH developed several new floor plans and presented
them to the Commission for review. The Commission is aware of the logistical
and contractual requirements that act as constraints upon NMAH (Appendix
E), and the many challenges NMAH faces in trying to accommodate new ideas.
So it is especially appreciative of NMAH's continuing efforts to develop
a satisfactory future floor plan. The latest NMAH iteration available
to the Commission (floor plan "H") is at Appendix H. The following
recommendations are partly a response to this floor plan. At the same
time, the recommendations are generally relevant for the further development
of future floor plans.
RECOMMENDATION (13) re: VIRTUES OF FLOOR PLAN "H"
THE COMMISSION AFFIRMS THE FOLLOWING CHARACTERISTICS OF NMAH'S LATEST
FLOOR PLAN ("H"), AND RECOMMENDS THAT ANY FUTURE VERSION SHOULD,
AT A MINIMUM, HAVE SUCH CHARACTERISTICS.
- (13-a) EXISTENCE. A SERIOUSLY CONSIDERED FUTURE FLOOR PLAN
MUST (AND NOW DOES) EXIST. Note: This is not meant as a flippant suggestion.
If the Museum is to control its future, and make incremental decisions
that are ultimately to come together as a coherent whole, it must seriously
plan for that future -- one measure of which is a floor plan to which
the institution is committed.
- (13-b) COMPREHENSIBILITY. THE FLOOR PLAN MUST BE (AND IS)
COMPREHENSIBLE, AND (SOMEWHAT) CONCEPTUAL.
- (13-c) INTRODUCTORY EXHIBIT SPACE. THE FLOOR PLAN MUST PROVIDE
(AND DOES PROVIDE) SUFFICIENT SPACE FOR THE INTRODUCTORY EXHIBIT THAT
THE COMMISSION HAS RECOMMENDED -- IN A LOCATION THAT IS READILY ACCESSIBLE
TO VISITORS UPON ENTRY TO THE MUSEUM.
- (13-d) CLUSTERING. THE FLOOR PLAN SHOULD (AND DOES) GROUP
RELATED EXHIBITS AND ACTIVITIES TOGETHER. (Note: In floor plan H, such
groupings include a cluster comprised of the related matters of Orientation
and Introduction (both near the main floor entry); a combination of
First Ladies and the American Presidency; and a single floor largely
committed to Learning, Science, Medicine, and Invention.
- (13-e) VISUAL ORIENTATION. TO INCREASE THE SENSE OF OPENNESS
AND FACILITATE VISITORS' SPACIAL ORIENTATION, THE FLOOR PLAN SHOULD
(i) OPEN THE VERTICAL CENTRAL CORE OF THE MUSEUM;
(ii) LOCATE THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER AND ITS ASSOCIATED EXHIBIT CENTRALLY;
(iii) PROVIDE HIGHLY VISIBLE SPACE FOR SEVERAL ADDITIONAL DISTINCTIVE
ICONS IN THE SIX MAJOR SEGMENTS OF THE MUSEUM, ALLOWING THESE ICONS
TO SERVE AS ORIENTATION POINTS, WITH OPEN HORIZONTAL LINES OF SIGHT
TO THEM; AND
(iv) INCREASE VISITORS' VISUAL ACCESS TO WONDERFUL EXTERNAL VISTAS.
- (13-f) CHANGING GALLERIES AND ADDITIONAL SUBJECTS. NMAH MUST
PROVIDE SUFFICIENT SPACE FOR SEVERAL SMALLER GALLERIES TO ACCOMMODATE
CHANGING NMAH EXHIBITIONS -- IN ORDER TO ALLOW A LARGER NUMBER OF SUBJECTS
TO BE TREATED, AND TO PROVIDE A CREATIVE OUTLET FOR CONTINUING RESEARCH
AND DEVELOPMENT BY NMAH PROFESSIONALS. Note: Many highly important historical
subjects remain untreated in Plan H. It provides two changing galleries
on the main floor -- one principally for visiting exhibits developed
elsewhere, and one that is largely set, focused on the processes of
collecting. It provides an additional changing gallery on each of the
other two floors. These are all desirable. But they may not be sufficient.
NMAH would suggest that changing spaces should also be provided within
the larger, fixed, long-term exhibits. Unless such spaces are identified
and secured, it seems unlikely that they may develop in the manner that
RECOMMENDATION (14) re: ADDITIONAL FLOOR PLAN REQUIREMENTS
WHILE FLOOR PLAN "H" REPRESENTS A USEFUL STEP FORWARD, IT STILL
LEAVES SEVERAL IMPORTANT ISSUES THAT MUST BE ADDRESSED BY NMAH AND ITS
NEW DIRECTOR. AMONG THESE ARE THE FOLLOWING:
- (14-a) RACE, ETHNICITY, GENDER, CREED. AN OBJECTIVE FOR NMAH
SHOULD BE TO TREAT ISSUES OF RACE, ETHNICITY, GENDER, AND CREED FAIRLY
AND ACCURATELY AS AN INTEGRAL PART OF AMERICAN HISTORY. THAT IS, THESE
ISSUES SHOULD BE UNDERSTOOD AS INEXTRICABLY ENTWINED WITH THE TREATMENT
OF MOST MAJOR SUBJECTS THAT NMAH WOULD BE EXPECTED TO TREAT, RATHER
THAN AS REPRESENTATIONAL ADD-ONS OR ENTIRELY SEPARATE SUBJECTS. IN MOVING
TOWARD FULFILLMENT OF THIS OBJECTIVE, HOWEVER, NMAH MUST BE SENSITIVE
TO THE NEED TO MANAGE THE PROCESS OF TRANSITION IN A WAY THAT DOES NOT
ALIENATE INTERESTED GROUPS, BUT RATHER, EARNS THEIR TRUST. Note: Floor
plan "H" does not directly address Recommendation (14-a) with
respect to issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and creed. It could be
understood as intending to move in the direction of the stated objective.
Yet, it is not clear that it intends to do so. Even if it were clear,
a statement of intent would still be a long distance from actual implementation.
So, as it is -- or viewed in isolation -- floor plan "H" may
entail an undesirable and unnecessary risk of alienating groups NMAH
does not mean to alienate. As NMAH develops its major new exhibits --
intending to treat issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and creed appropriately
within them -- it must take care to assure that its plans are well-known
and credible. Sufficient credibility must be established to assure that
any necessary decommissioning of exhibits that now may represent particular
racial or ethnic groups is neither misunderstood nor alienating. (Please
see a related Note at recommendation (11-d).)
- (14-b) THEMES. WHILE APPRECIATING THAT FLOOR PLAN "H"
IS AN ADVANCE RELATIVE TO THE STATUS QUO, NMAH SHOULD CONTINUE TO WORK
TOWARD A MORE THEMATIC, ENGAGING, AND ACTIVE CONCEPTUAL LOGIC. Note:
This does not require radical adjustment. Working with floor plan "H",
it might simply mean shifting from an inert series of topics like "Science,
Medicine, and Technology" to a more active version of the same
subjects -- say, "The Quest for Knowledge and Technological Progress."
Similarly, it might mean shifting from "Timelines, Identities,
and Introductions," to something like "The Struggle for Freedom,
Democracy, and Opportunity." These are not merely semantic changes.
They seem likely to encourage more engaging and educational treatments
- (14-c) ADDITIONAL EXHIBIT SPACE. RECOMMENDATION (7) (which
seeks the relocation of functions that need not be on the Mall) MUST
TAKE ON ADDITIONAL SIGNIFICANCE IN LIGHT OF RECOMMENDATIONS (13-f),
(14-a), and (14-d). THAT IS, ADDITIONAL EXHIBIT SPACE SHOULD BE FOUND
NOT ONLY AS A MATTER OF OPTIMAL USE OF VALUABLE FLOOR SPACE. ADDITIONAL
EXHIBIT SPACE WOULD ALSO HELP MEET THE NEEDS TO ADDRESS MORE SUBJECTS,
RETAIN AND ATTRACT FIRST-CLASS PROFESSIONALS, INCREASE FLEXIBILITY,
AND MANAGE TRANSITION SENSIBLY.
- (14-d) LONG-TERM COMMITMENTS. HAVING ALREADY MADE LONG TERM
COMMITMENTS FOR A LARGE PROPORTION OF ITS FLOOR SPACE, NMAH MUST APPROACH
ADDITIONAL SUCH COMMITMENTS WITH GREAT CAUTION IF IT IS TO PRESERVE
FLEXIBILITY AND TREAT ADDITIONAL TOPICS -- ESPECIALLY IF IT IS UNABLE
TO SECURE ADDITIONAL EXHIBIT SPACE.
Table of Contents | III.E.
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