Who Owns America's Past?: The Smithsonian and the Problem of History

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JHU Press, Oct 22, 2013 - Art - 370 pages
3 Reviews

In 1994, when the National Air and Space Museum announced plans to display the Enola Gay, the B-29 sent to destroy Hiroshima with an atomic bomb, the ensuing political uproar left the museum's parent Smithsonian Institution entirely unprepared. As the largest such complex in the world, the Smithsonian cares for millions of objects and has displayed everything from George Washington's sword to moon rocks to Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Why did this particular object arouse such controversy? From an insider’s perspective, Robert C. Post’s Who Owns America’s Past? offers insight into the politics of display and the interpretation of history.

Never before has a book about the Smithsonian detailed the recent and dramatic shift from collection-driven shows, with artifacts meant to speak for themselves, to concept-driven exhibitions, in which objects aim to tell a story, displayed like illustrations in a book. Even more recently, the trend is to show artifacts along with props, sound effects, and interactive elements in order to create an immersive environment. Rather than looking at history, visitors are invited to experience it.

Who Owns America’s Past? examines the different ways that the Smithsonian’s exhibitions have been conceived and designed—whether to educate visitors, celebrate an important historical moment, or satisfy donor demands or partisan agendas. Post gives the reader a behind-the-scenes view of internal tempests as they brewed and how different personalities and experts passionately argued about the best way to present the story of America.


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Review: Who Owns America's Past?: The Smithsonian and the Problem of History

User Review  - Biblio Files - Goodreads

What is the purpose of the Smithsonian? Never having given this a lot of thought, I supposed it was to save anything that had to do with the history of the United States. In my only visit to the ... Read full review

Review: Who Owns America's Past?: The Smithsonian and the Problem of History

User Review  - Beth - Goodreads

I'd like to finish this book, but I loaned it to Brian Wolly and hasn't given it back yet. Read full review


1 A Chain of Events Linking Past to Present
2 Modernization
3 A Worthy Home for National Treasures
4 Allies and Critics
5 To Join in a Smithsonian Renaissance
6 A Special Kind of Insight
7 The Winged Gospel
8 Celebration or Education?
9 A Crisis of Representation
10 Smalls World
11 Timely and Relevant Th emes and Methods of Presentation
What Is the Story?

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About the author (2013)

Robert C. Post, now curator emeritus, was employed by the Smithsonian for twenty-three years, beginning in 1973. He was responsible for several technological collections and story-driven exhibits. His books include Urban Mass Transit: The Life Story of a Technology and High Performance: The Culture and Technology of Drag Racing, 1950–2000, both published by Johns Hopkins. He also edited the quarterly journal Technology and Culture, also published by Johns Hopkins. The Society for the History of Technology awarded him the Leonardo da Vinci Medal, its highest honor. Who Owns America's Past? combines information from hitherto-untapped archival sources, extensive interviews, a thorough review of the secondary literature, and considerable personal experience.

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