Report of The Blue Ribbon Commission on the National Museum of American HistorySmithsonian Institution - National Museum of American History

 

(III. Recommendations)

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 perspective:

  • 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 general statement.
  • 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 TERMS; AND

    (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 (AND DOES):

    (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 is hoped.

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 and experiences.
  • (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.

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