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Saving Private Ryan or Serving Private Power? Corporate Money and Public History at the Smithsonian

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Yesterday, the director of the National Museum of Natural History, Robert Fri, announced his resignation, the latest sign of the discontent among researchers, curators and scholars with what some regard as the increasing corporatization of the most trusted museum in America.

Much of the controversy surrounds Lawrence Small, a former executive with Citibank and board member of Marriot International and Fannie Mae, who took over as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution last year — the first non-academic to run the museums in 150 years.

One of his first acts was to cut short an exhibit on the folksinger and activist Woody Guthrie in order to install one on the presidency sponsored by Cisco Systems and Chevy Chase Bank in time for last year’s election. In April, Small attempted to close a branch of the National Zoo which conducts internationally renowned research into endangered species, then reversed his decision after widespread public criticism.

But it is the influx of corporate cash tied to specific projects that has upset many of the museum’s scholars and curators. Perhaps the most controversial is a donation of $38 million from businesswoman Catherine Reynolds for a “hall of achievement,” which would honor “the power of the individual to shape American life and impact the course of history.” Among the people Reynolds has proposed honoring are figure skater Dorothy Hamill and television news celebrity Sam Donaldson.

Last week, a group of curators and scholars at the Museum of American History circulated a letter accusing Mr. Small of jeopardizing the integrity of the Smithsonian and ignoring the museum’s decision-making process. Some Smithsonian employees have even pasted stickers saying “Dump Small” on their jackets, and on bulletin boards and elevators.

At stake, many say, is not just the integrity of the Smithsonian, but the very idea that public history should serve the public good.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Robbins performing the poetry of Woody Guthrie. If Woody Guthrie, who sang “This Land Is Your Land,” could see what’s happening at the Smithsonian Institution, he might be tempted to rise from the grave and bring his famous guitar out of retirement.

Yesterday, the director of the National Museum of Natural History, Robert Fri, announced his resignation. This is the latest sign of the discontent among Smithsonian researchers, curators and scholars with what some regard as the increasing corporatization of the most trusted museum in America. Much of the controversy surrounds Lawrence Small, a former executive with Citibank and board member of Marriott International, who took over as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution last year, the first non-academic to run the museum in 150 years. One of his first acts was to cut short an exhibit on folksinger Woody Guthrie in order to install one on the presidency, sponsored by Cisco Systems and Chevy Chase Bank, in time for last year’s election. In April, Small attempted to close a branch of the National Zoo which conducts internationally renowned research into endangered species, then reversed his decision after widespread public criticism.

But it’s the influx of corporate cash tied to specific projects that’s upset many of the museum’s scholars and curators. Among the projects that have been controversial are the $38 million form businesswoman Catherine Reynolds for a, quote, “hall of achievement” which would honor, quote, “the power of the individual to shape American life and impact the course of history.” Among the people Reynolds has proposed honoring are figure skater Dorothy Hamill and TV news celebrity Sam Donaldson. Then you’ve got the Kmart-Smithsonian partnership in sponsoring a traveling mobile museum featuring an exhibit entitled “Wade in the Water: The Traditions of Sacred African American Music.” The project is a traveling mobile museum on a truck with Kmart and Smithsonian logos emblazoned on it.

Last week, a group of curators and scholars at the Museum of American History circulated a letter accusing Small of jeopardizing the integrity of the Smithsonian, ignoring the museum’s decision-making process. Some Smithsonian employees have even pasted stickers saying “Dump Small” on their jackets and on bulletin boards and elevators. At stake, many say, is not just the integrity of the Smithsonian, but the very idea that public history should serve the public good.

We’re joined right now by two curators from the Smithsonian. Barbara Smith and Dr. Barney Finn are curators at the National Museum of American History.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! And we will go back to them in just a minute.

Let me say, in the second segment of the program, we will be taking a look at the movie Pearl Harbor. On Memorial Day, it opened, the Disney movie. It spawned a cottage industry of books, articles and memorabilia offering a celebratory, even mythic, account of the events that led the United States into World War II. It’s a version of history shorn of racism, social conflict, Japanese or American imperialism, or even cigarette-smoking soldiers. We’re going to talk with Howard Zinn about the corporatization of history. And then, Bob McChesney will be joining us to talk about Rupert Murdoch’s, it looks like, attempt to close a deal on DirecTV.

So, let’s go now to a curator of the National Museum of American History, Barbara Smith, to talk about the latest controversies at her institution.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

BARBARA SMITH: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: First, yesterday, the director of the National Museum of Natural History, Robert Fri’s resignation, what does this mean?

BARBARA SMITH: Well, I’m not at all sure about that. It’s certainly one piece of a lot of radical changes going on at the Smithsonian. I don’t really know his reasons, but I do think what you’re seeing in our museum is a radical change in the direction of the museum.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what the secretary of the Smithsonian, Lawrence Small, is doing.

BARBARA SMITH: Well, as I understand it, with the recent initiatives at American History, we’re really switching something important in the Smithsonian. There’s really a difference between the sort of history exhibitions that we have traditionally done, which give historical context and ask questions and present collections based on decisions internally, the research we do, the collections we have and our studies of what the public is interested in, what they’re concerned about or their educational needs are — that’s the sort of traditional thing, what we’ve been doing during my tenure at the museum. And now, as I understand it, we’re switching to something else.

With the donation by Catherine Reynolds, I think we’re committing ourselves to doing a hall of fame of American achievers. I understand, from what the secretary has said, that the final decision about what achievers will be celebrated at this hall will be up to the institution, meaning the administration, not even, I don’t think, the director of my museum, and certainly not the historians within the museum. But even if that’s up to the institution, it’s clear that the notion that it’s a hall of fame and that this will express the private funders’ preconceptions and ideas and ideals seems pretty clear.

And that’s a real transformation, to go from being a history museum to a place that represents private funders’ ideas, not just a place that works with private funders and accepts their support, independent of the content of an exhibition, but that it accepts their priority. That’s a real change. And that seems to be going on without discussion in the public. And that’s a real question, whether an institution funded by tax dollars to present American history and collections to the public should change its nature, not based on internal discussion among staff or as a result of wide public discussion and debate, but as a result of wealthy funders’ preferences. I don’t think anyone would debate Ms. Reynolds’ right to set up her own museum to present her own priorities and point of view about American achievement, but for the Smithsonian to start presenting a hall of achievers of living 20th century Americans and to celebrate them as heroes, without bringing historical context or perspective, is something quite different from what we’ve ever done.

AMY GOODMAN: Among the people she’d like to see honored in the museum that would take on her name, Steven Spielberg; Oprah Winfrey; Martha Stewart; Frederick Smith, founder of Federal Express; Steve Case, chair of AOL Time Warner; George Bush; and others.

BARBARA SMITH: Well, you know, that’s — I can understand her wishing to honor those people. I think the question isn’t whether she wishes to honor them or celebrate specific achievements of anyone. The question is whether the Smithsonian, which is a public institution, should honor individuals living today, should merely celebrate, and also whether this should be up to someone who donates money, because if once that’s established, then the next person down coming along with millions of dollars can decide that we should also do something else.

And I think that, the notion that there should be no broad public debate, that’s a problem. That seems to me a big public issue, what the Smithsonian does and what its standards are, and how proposals get accepted or not accepted, whether they’re reviewed. If you have ideas for what the Smithsonian should do, we’d certainly welcome them and think about them. But I don’t think we’d automatically accept them without going through any internal procedures, unless you can accompany that idea, apparently, by a whole lot of money. And that’s a very upsetting thought, that, essentially, if you have the money, you can bypass established procedures, you can —decisions will be made by people who are administrators and not historians, and that this will happen without public debate or discussion about what’s happening.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Dr. Barney Finn, who is one of the longest-serving curators at the Smithsonian, also at the National Museum of American History, working in electrical collections. How have you seen the shaping of exhibitions by private money change over the years, Dr. Finn?

BARNEY FINN: I think what’s important to say here is that the change has indeed taken place. I’ve been here since this museum opened. —

AMY GOODMAN: Are you on a speaker phone? Could you come off of your speaker phone?

BARNEY FINN: [inaudible] And we’ve done so because of the staff here, because of historians, our colleagues in universities. They’ve changed their minds about how to approach history, because the public has changed. And we have responded to this, with a lot of help, including help from donors. But typically, you can look at exhibit after exhibit here, where either we have had an idea and then have gone and sought money, or occasionally where donors have come in with an idea, and we have said, “Gee, that’s pretty good, and it fits with our criteria and our schedule.” But typically, the money is given, and we do our thing, and they come back, and we all have a nice opening and celebrate the event, and that’s it, that there’s a level of trust that they have in us to do what is right.

The secretary yesterday made a comparison, an analogy, with — oh, a couple of them, but one was a malaria institute that had recently been given to Johns Hopkins University, and said, you know, here the donor had determined what was going to be studied. Well, I think that’s not quite true. The donor offered to give the money if Hopkins wanted to study malaria, and it was up to Hopkins to determine: Do they want to do this? And apparently they thought this was something that was appropriate for them to do, and they took it. But after that, I’m pretty sure the donor didn’t tell them what kind of research to do and how they should pursue this. So that we are concerned both with the general program and who determines that, and then, as Barbara says, also the content of that program.

AMY GOODMAN: Who’s going to win here? You have the letter of your group, the Smithsonian Congress of Scholars, who have written a letter to the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents. It says, “Of all the acquisitions made by the Smithsonian in over 150 years, the most significant by far is the trust of the American people. As staff members of the National Museum of American History, we write to you out of the responsibility we share for maintaining that public trust. We feel obliged to speak out about recent decisions by Secretary Small that we believe jeopardized the integrity and authority of this beloved institution.”

BARNEY FINN: Well, hopefully we’ll all win. Hopefully the American people will win and that the Smithsonian will retain that trust and that we and the secretary, in proper debate mode, will come to an agreement on this. But at the moment, it’s a little bit polarized, admittedly.

AMY GOODMAN: What about these “Dump Small” buttons and signs that are going up around the museum, Barbara Smith?

BARBARA SMITH: Well, I’m not too sure about that. I do know that since Small has been in charge, there have been many disputes —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, that conversation was cut off, and we have to go to break anyway. Sorry, we’re broadcasting out of substudios of WBAI right now, and we’ve had continued phone problems here. But our guests have been Barbara Smith, curator of the National Museum of American History, and Dr. Barney Finn, curator of the National Museum of American History, as well, talking about the controversies at the Smithsonian. Yesterday, the director of the National Museum of Natural History, Robert Fri, resigned — the latest sign of the discontent among researchers, curators and scholars with what some regard as increasing corporatization of the most trusted museum in America.

When we come back, we’ll be joined by Howard Zinn and the news dissector, Danny Schechter, to talk about the launching of the movie Pearl Harbor and its connections to the U.S, military. Stay with us.

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