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

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JHU Press, Oct 22, 2013 - Art - 370 pages
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Honorable mention, National Council on Public History Book AwardOutstanding Academic Title, Choice

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. Combining information from hitherto-untapped archival sources, extensive interviews, a thorough review of the secondary literature, and considerable personal experience, Post gives the reader a behind-the-scenes view of disputes among curators, academics, and stakeholders that were sometimes private and at other times burst into headline news.

"Post's thoughtful elucidation of the exhibits and the ensuing controversies demonstrate the complexities of the environment in the national museum in the twentieth century. Further, this work documents the shifting priorities of the Smithsonian, revealing the many different actors that took part in the creation of both well-known exhibits and many smaller ones. The book also provides many interesting and important examples of the interconnections between historians of technology and the Smithsonian. This excellent work will be valuable to public historians as well as laypersons."—Choice

"A pick for any collection strong in museum management and history. The result goes beyond a recommendation for arts holdings, examining how American history itself is documented and presented."—Midwest Book Review

"A detailed insider's look at growth and change across the institution. The book offers a rich and readable intellectual biography of the Smithsonian."—Journal of American History

"The Smithsonian finally gets its Washington insider-tells-all memoir. Who Owns America's Past? documents the value of the Smithsonian's distinctive culture—and also the way it has kept the institution from being all that it might be."—The American Historian

"Weaves original primary source research, scholarly synthesis, and personal experiences into a highly readable study of the cultural history of America's most popular museum institution."—Museums and Social Issues

"Here is an eyewitness account of many of the personalities, controversies, artifacts, and interpretations that most of us know in their final, burnished form, upon the walls of the world's greatest history museum. Who Owns America's Past? is a needed book."—American Historical Review

"This is an important book that examines the inner workings of the Smithsonian in ways that are both interesting and useful. There are no easy answers to the questions Post raises with this insightful text."—Technology and Culture

Robert C. Post was employed by the Smithsonian for twenty-three years and was responsible for several of the technological collections and for the content of major exhibits. His books include Every Four Years: The American Presidency and In Context: History and the History of Technology, and he is the former editor of the Society for the History of Technology’s journal, Technology and Culture. In 2001 he was awarded the Society’s highest honor, the Leonardo da Vinci Medal.


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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 includeUrban 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 journalTechnology 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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