Controversy in Public History … Can We Move Beyond Relativism?

Public historians took a battering 20 years ago through highly public struggles over two Smithsonian exhibits.

Public historians took a battering 20 years ago through highly public struggles over two Smithsonian exhibits, The West as America at the National Museum of American Art (1991) and the Enola Gay at the National Air and Space Museum (1995). While it may seem tiresome to return to old debates, the field’s growing focus on audiences, interactivity, and participatory scaffolding (to borrow from Nina Simon) highlights unplumbed learning value in those 1990s experiences.

But recalling them can hardly be pleasant. At both museums, portions of the audience, media reviewers and some funders objected strenuously to interpretation they perceived as unpatriotic, incomplete, and tendentious. The museums, individual staff, and outside scholars associated with the exhibits suffered damaged credibility, blighted careers, and several years of humiliating attack in the media and on the floor of Congress.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian website.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian website.

The timing of the furor created serious problems for the practice of public history overall. At a moment when including up-to-date scholarship had just established itself as a building block of best practice, The West as America and the Enola Gay called the whole role of scholars in public history into question. The profession suffered both immediate and lasting consequences from these traumatic years of public exposure, and public historians have since worked hard to develop new paths forward.

Scholars remain indispensable partners in the practice of public history, not only to assure the accuracy of museum exhibits but also, and more importantly, to foster communication between the academy and the citizenry. By grounding curatorial work in scholarship, public historians help increase the circulation of up-to-date ideas, even about subjects long in the past. In return for sharing their scholarship, scholars get opportunities to reach wide audiences and to test and shape their theories by hearing what questions citizens are asking. Maintaining interactive communication between scholars and citizens assures that fresh thinking can address real public needs and that new analyses of the national past can empower citizens to make their own important decisions well. Public history grounded in scholarship thus provides a critical resource for the functioning of democracy.

The museum controversies of the 1990s exposed how much distance had opened between scholarly and popular understandings of the American past. Invisible to the curatorial teams in their exhibit planning work, public responses eventually revealed the distance all too clearly. Public historians, averse to controversy in the aftermath, have responded by multiplying the voices included on any subjects that might be charged and by privileging a broad-based, factual approach to interpretation. But inclusion and multi-vocal neutrality have given the profession very uncertain results. Positioning ourselves to receive, indeed to court and welcome, controversy throughout the interpretive and exhibition processes might have been a more sustainable reaction.

Two major national exhibits emerged in the next decade under the rubric of caution and multi-vocal neutrality. New York Historical Society made a public relations splash in 2005 with an exhibit about urban slavery while the Presidents House in Philadelphia created a powerful collaboration of scholars, citizens and government in 2001 that resulted, after a contentious decade, in new interpretation of a very important and nearly forgotten site in Independence Park. Both efforts, while successful in some measurable ways, fell short of their full civic power.

Slavery in New York (2005) exposed both collections and recent scholarship that distinguished urban slavery from the better-known plantation slavery experience. Persuading visitors that slavery existed in the North and in cities carried public knowledge about American slavery forward a very important increment. But the exhibit settled for reporting broadly on historical experiences and then asking contemporary audiences for their reactions, declining to connect the past to the present in the interpretation itself. The few interactive displays kept the slavery experience safely in the past, despite contemporary concerns about social justice, police violence, and racial profiling then playing out on the streets of New York. The reactions offered by visitors, not surprisingly, focused on personal excitement over seeing one’s own past finally included in “history.” But public history can do more than just feed contemporary audiences’ appetite for personal, privatized access to “my history.” With better scaffolding for participants, Slavery in New York could have realized at least some of the potential for civic engagement that lay within its grasp.

The President's House, located at 600 Market Street, in Philadelphia, PA. Photo Courtesy of Visit Philly.
The President’s House, located at 600 Market Street, in Philadelphia, PA. Photo Courtesy of Visit Philly.

In similar ways, The President’s House in Philadelphia (2010) embraced the challenge of telling several divergent stories while largely punting on the site’s most important narrative: the demonstrated simultaneity of how Americans built their ideals of liberty directly on the foundation of slavery and literally on the backs of nine named and known enslaved people belonging to George and Martha Washington. Public reaction since the site opened has been largely positive, expressing pleasure and gratification, along with some chagrin, at seeing the story of American slavery told right on Independence Mall, in George Washington’s home, steps from the Liberty Bell and bracketed physically by Independence Hall and the National Constitution Center.

Including the story of slavery, and the names of Oney Judge, Moll, Austin, Hercules, Richmond, Giles, Paris, Christopher Sheels, and Joe (Richardson), all enslaved Africans, is a huge forward step, of course. However, like Slavery in New York, the Presidents House achievement stops at inclusion, well short of the potentially controversial, but undeniably essential, civic mission of inspiring citizens to disentangle the strangling cords of centuries of racial oppression from American ideals. One can hope, and I do, that hearing the sounds of slavery within the chorus of admiration for the Founding Generation will prepare Independence Park’s 2 million annual visitors for a deeper challenge some years hence.

But that is another dream deferred. I think public historians can do better. I challenged my public history class at Penn State Abington this spring to consider how far public history might indeed go if we chose a different path out of the anguish of the 1990’s. We tried to imagine ways that public historians could use powerful public outcry to support important civic learning. *

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way by Emanuel Leutze (1862). Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of
Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way by Emanuel Leutze (1862). Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of

And we concluded that moving public history practice beyond multi-vocal “my history” and restoring its civic mission would require fundamentally changing our professional relationship to controversy. We propose therefore a different attitude about controversy, an attitude that might have let the two Smithsonian exhibits push the profession toward rather than away from civic engagement, perhaps thereby opening untold richness for the Slavery and President’s House work that followed.

The 1991 West as America exhibit brouhaha gave the profession our first clue, but we missed it. Eighty percent of the public respondents valued the challenges posed by the exhibit’s approach, but the museum responded primarily to the 20% who took offense. Not ready for the burden of managing any negativity at all, the Museum retreated, apologized, and even changed content to appease the angry minority. They might, instead, have celebrated a civic triumph by holding up the vast majority who appreciated the education and stimulation they got, and feeding serious content about the West and about the whole Columbian impact on the Americas into the conversations (even the loud, accusatory, and ideological ones) started by the minority. The National Museum of Natural History did this effectively with its exhibit, Seeds of Change. Frankly confronting arguments about the origin of syphilis and the genocidal rates of Native death from European diseases, Seeds of Change showed its international audience how the voyages of Columbus gave the world much to cherish and much to despise. Seeds of Change had room to quote Hernando Cortez’s famous line, that “the white man has a disease of the heart, which can only be cured by gold,” without inciting any audience rioting. The Columbian Exchange defined the architecture of the modern world. Seeds of Change answered the civic need to judge 500 years of European conquest by showing us a story far too complex to be simply good or bad.

Main entrance of Seeds of Change decorated with Indian corn. Photo Courtesy of
Main entrance of Seeds of Change decorated with Indian corn. Photo Courtesy of

Had the National Museum of American Art known that some proportion of the audience would suffer over the questioning of their patriotic and artistic assumptions, they might have prepared in advance to convert that pain into education and positive civic growth. But they could only have known by inviting the objecting side into the discussion even as the exhibit was planned.

Preparing for controversy therefore goes far beyond planning still more multi-vocal, inclusive programs during the run of the exhibit. Public historians have a primary professional responsibility to find and serve real civic needs and controversy is the best tool we have for digging down to that core. We therefore must become devoted students and skilled practitioners of controversy.

The key practice available to 21st-century public historians has four components—first invite the “anti” voices to the planning table. Second, let the debates over deep differences reveal the real civic need that the exhibit can meet. The actual sources of social pain and civic dysfunction will emerge from hot-tempered disagreement, well-fielded with historical research, far more effectively than through detached academic discourse. Third, shape the exhibit to meet that need, and four, prepare the exhibit’s exponents to transform the controversy that will come.

In the case of the Enola Gay exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum, the crippling firestorm that emerged did ultimately highlight the real need. In 1995, Americans needed urgently to understand the Cold War. Half a century after the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that arguably initiated the Cold War, and 6 years after the Berlin Wall came down, potentially ending it, Americans needed desperately to know, had we won? If so, what did winning mean? What had it cost us, practically, diplomatically, and spiritually, to “win” the Cold War? And, most vitally of all, now that the perilous conflict had come to an end, without causing World War III but leaving us with a massively expensive military arsenal that we still can never use, how did we want to go forward?

The exhibit at the Smithsonian showing the fuselage, propeller, and other components of the Enola Gay. Photo Courtesy of
The exhibit at the Smithsonian showing the fuselage, propeller, and other components of the Enola Gay. Photo Courtesy of

Had the museum been able to sound the depth of this public fear and uncertainty while planning the Enola Gay exhibit, they might have created a different exhibit entirely. Perhaps the factual stories of the cities beneath the bombs and the calculations of US military and political brass squandered the exhibit’s potential to offer meaningful insight on the past, present, and future of American world leadership. Using 50 years of American world leadership as the architecture of the exhibit would have made ample interpretive room to value both US infantry and Japanese civilians, for military heroism and moral uncertainty, for American power and benevolence alongside American imperialism and belligerence, for racism and humanitarianism alike.

In the best of all possible worlds, we would have emerged from a 50th anniversary exhibit about the atom bombs with a much more thoughtful path to our own future. We might have had a real plan for the peace dividend, one that included the fact of unbalanced regional dependencies on military-industrial spending. We might have envisioned new, shared commitments to education at home and leadership abroad. Those shared visions could have prepared us better to successfully confront terrorism, adjust our economy, and manage our energy politics without the crippling, militantly moronic polarization that afflicts our politics today. All those needs were crying out for attention in 1995, and public history brought none of them forward.

And in that, we failed our nation.

By expecting controversy, inviting it into our planning processes, and harnessing its power to reveal urgent civic needs, public history could move beyond relativism and inclusion. As fine as those goals are, and as hard as they have been to achieve, they belong to the 20th century. Today’s challenges are civic. With courage, vision, and leadership, public historians can nurture the decaying civitas on which democracy depends – and indeed I think that is our mission.

*I wish to acknowledge and thank Abington public history students, Vicki Aller, Billy Carroll, Diane Moskal, and Kendall Torres for their invaluable contributions to the development of these ideas.