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A Living Exhibition

A Living Exhibition: The Smithsonian and the Transformation of the Universal Museum

William S. Walker
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    A Living Exhibition
    Book Description:

    Since its founding in 1846 “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” the Smithsonian Institution has been an important feature of the American cultural landscape. In A Living Exhibition, William S. Walker examines the tangled history of cultural exhibition at the Smithsonian from its early years to the chartering of the National Museum of the American Indian in 1989. He tracks the transformation of the institution from its original ideal as a “universal museum” intended to present the totality of human experience to the variegated museum and research complex of today. Walker pays particular attention to the half century following World War II, when the Smithsonian significantly expanded. Focusing on its exhibitions of cultural history, cultural anthropology, and folk life, he places the Smithsonian within the larger context of Cold War America and the social movements of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Organized chronologically, the book uses the lens of the Smithsonian’s changing exhibitions to show how institutional decisions become intertwined with broader public debates about pluralism, multiculturalism, and decolonization. Yet if a trend toward more culturally specific museums and exhibitions characterized the postwar history of the institution, its leaders and curators did not abandon the vision of the universal museum. Instead, Walker shows, even as the Smithsonian evolved into an extensive complex of museums, galleries, and research centers, it continued to negotiate the imperatives of cultural convergence as well as divergence, embodying both a desire to put everything together and a need to take it all apart.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-269-1
    Subjects: History, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: The Changing Universal Museum
    (pp. 1-10)

    The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum and research complex, and, remarkably, it is still expanding. I began researching this book in 2004, the year that the landmark National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) opened in Washington, D.C. Excitement, and perhaps some anxiety, was in the air as people looked forward to the debut of a museum that held the promise of significantly transforming not only the Smithsonian, but museums in general. It was an exciting time to be studying the history of this sprawling institution, and I genuinely felt that it, as well as the entire museum...

  5. 1 The Universal Museum: Shaping Cultural Exhibition at the Smithsonian
    (pp. 11-43)

    In the 1840s, the National Mall was a barren and unattractive stretch of land. Its most notable feature was the unusable Washington Canal that ran along its northern side to the Capitol before turning south toward the Anacostia River. Black and white Washingtonians knew it as the hub of the city’s slave trading operations, which were clustered along its southeastern edge and a short distance to the north at the Center Market. Since the 1790s, several influential people had hoped to transform the Mall into a more inviting space, but none had yet succeeded.¹ Consequently, it was hardly the first...

  6. 2 History and Technology: A New Museum, a New Era
    (pp. 44-85)

    By the mid-twentieth century, the United States National Museum was, by all accounts, bursting at the seams, overcrowded with poorly maintained, inadequately lighted, and insufficiently labeled exhibits. Articles in newspapers and magazines consistently referred to the Smithsonian as the “Nation’s Attic.”¹ It was an apt moniker as row upon row, case upon case of artifacts lined the walls of the institution’s buildings, giving them the look of a cluttered and musty attic. A new building, or buildings, Smithsonian officials argued, would provide the space to create exhibits suitable for the institution’s unparalleled collections and improve the effectiveness with which the...

  7. 3 Open Education: The Festival of American Folklife and the Transformation of Space at the Smithsonian
    (pp. 86-117)

    In the early 1920s, when Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley was a young boy he lived with his mother in Paris. Years later he recalled fondly his experiences wandering the Tuileries Gardens, freely encountering all manner of youthful wonders. Ripley remembered watching Punch and Judy shows, building sand castles, and then slipping into the galleries of the Louvre where he discovered mesmerizingly intricate ship models. Evoking Proust’s madeline, he even recalled “looking for the old woman who soldgaufres, those wonderful hot wafer-thin, wafflelike creations dusted over with powdered sugar.” Perhaps his favorite activity, however, was riding the carousel “hoping...

  8. 4 Inclusion or Separation? The Anacostia Neighborhood Museum and the Festival of American Folklifeʹs American Indian Programs
    (pp. 118-152)

    Ripley was not content simply to transform the educational processes that transpired within and among the Smithsonian’s museums. He was also committed to creating a more inclusive institution. He saw clearly that the Smithsonian’s museums did not adequately or accurately represent the rich cultural diversity of American society, and he pursued various remedies for this problem in his first decade as secretary. The spark that drove him to make these changes undoubtedly came from the many people of color who demanded not only civil rights but also respect for cultural difference in this period. Ripley had a front row seat...

  9. 5 Finding National Unity through Cultural Diversity: The Smithsonian and the Bicentennial
    (pp. 153-195)

    In July 1970, Republican political strategist Kevin P. Phillips published a column in theWashington Posttitled “President Should Consider Festival of U.S. Folklife and History for ’76.” In it, he urged President Nixon to scrap the “usual pompous, commission-like proposals” being suggested to commemorate the Bicentennial of the American Revolution and instead embrace a national celebration patterned on the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife. For Phillips, the appeal of the festival was not only that it portrayed the vibrancy of American cultural traditions but, more important, that it seemed to foster a feeling of unity among festival visitors. “Wearers...

  10. 6 A Family of Humankind: The Making and Unmaking of a Museum of Man at the Smithsonian
    (pp. 196-226)

    As the Bicentennial festival reached its peak in the summer of 1976, Smithsonian officials debated its future. After such a blockbuster, what could they possibly do next? They knew the Bicentennial festival would be a hard act to follow, and no one favored mounting a festival of similar scale the following year. Various proposals were floated for reducing its size and scope. Some argued, for example, for “mini-festivals,” which would focus more intensely on a specific folk group.¹ A bolder suggestion was for the folklife festival to become part of a proposed Museum of Man.² A Smithsonian Museum of Man...

  11. Epilogue: Is It Possible to See It All?
    (pp. 227-230)

    After 1989, the Smithsonian entered one of the most tumultuous periods in its history. The early 1990s saw the institution become one of the primary battlegrounds in the “culture wars.” This is an oft-told tale, and interested readers may consult any number of books and articles to learn about the controversies of this period. The existing accounts, many of which were written by actual participants, stand as a detailed record of what occurred.¹ The twists and turns of “The West as America,” “Science in American Life,” and the failed Enola Gay exhibition serve as important lessons about handling controversial exhibitions....

  12. Notes
    (pp. 231-282)
  13. Index
    (pp. 283-291)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 292-293)