In the next installment of his thoughts on the STEP into the Smithsonian experience, Mohammed Rahman explores the diversity of the Smithsonian's facilities, from more than one angle.
The Smithsonian is a many-headed beast.
It’s a small town in its own right. We’ve visited *deep breath* the Smithsonian Castle, the joint National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), The National Museum of American History (NMAH), The National Postal Museum (NPM), The National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC), The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), The National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) and then some…
Yep, it’s taken us a while to swallow all the acronyms.
After a diverse range of behind-the-scenes tours, we can say this: if there’s one thing the museums share, it’s a logo. Despite the occasional loaning of collections between themselves, the Smithsonians all operate fairly independently from one another. Be it the nature of the collections (frail biological specimens versus chunky vehicles), or the curatorial thrust (from ‘dusty traditional’ to ‘family friendly’), there are many factors that play into what facilities and staff make each museum - which in turn determines what and how that museum can exhibit.
This chimerical approach has pros and cons. If we look at The Smithsonian Institution as a huge organism, with museums for organs, then this is a good thing, since compartmentalised museums can be more specialist with their collections, catering to the needs of one audience in a way that might alienate another. Knowing that most of its crowd has a pre-existing interest, a specialist museum can move beyond ‘hey-look-at-this-shiny-rock’ tactics, to the nitty gritty.
For instance, the National Postal Museum (one of the more niche museums) serves as a quiet sanctuary for stamp collectors to contemplate innovations in transport as applied to the post, whereas the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM) has a much broader scope and is very popular with schools, attracting hordes of MAGA-capped students, with its flashy interactive installations and IMAX cinema. While both museums may feature planes, they have very different levels of footfall, engagement, curation and accessibility. If we look at it like an organism, we can say that the Smithsonian is accessible in that it engages different levels of interest - but we need to remember that the Smithsonian IRL is verrrry spread out. We can’t assume that the general public has a 360° view of the whole institution cos, well, it’s a MISSION as we found out ourselves.
A cool side effect of specialist collections paired with cutting edge research is that it attracts a solid, passionate faculty. Many of our sessions ran over as the collections’ managers were so generous with their time and would discuss what they love in sincere, detailed and sometimes eccentric ways. It’s very reassuring that the Smithsonians have big brains AND big hearts managing their collections.
To give one example of many, let’s look at the entomology collection housed at the National Museum of American History (shown to us by collections manager, Floyd Shockley). The biggest entomology collection in the world - with over 35 million specimens - Floyd was kind enough to show us around and delve into everything from storage methods for wet specimens, to hazards during acquisitions in the field, to the collaboration between the entomology and forensics departments… apparently bugs tell us a lot about murder mysteries! Floyd has literally put his flesh and blood into the collection and it shows in his eagerness to share knowledge. And yeah, I was serious about the whole flesh and blood thing. Floyd intentionally reared two bot fly larvae to maturity on his own skin, which feature in the collection!
On the other hand, specialism can be isolating. If we’re not careful, stories are sectioned off and crammed into arbitrary boxes. When materials are separated across museums, it gets easier to overlook how info and objects are equally important to multiple collections, skewing the narrative. Accountability can then be avoided and the public can be fed propaganda. In my opinion, the role of the museum is to make information available for the public to make their own political decisions for themselves - like good journalism.
In this vein, I take issue with museums putting on an air of singular objectivity, knowing that they’re huge collaborative efforts, with a cacophony of voices behind them. With such a vibrant and interesting faculty, it’s a shame how many behind the scenes conversations are often anonymized, with the final edit written as though it all came from one mind. And that’s just internally within each museum - gaps in the narrative inevitably pop up here and there across the sites. For instance, who exactly built the Smithsonian Castle was omitted from our castle tour - instead our docent guide delved into the stories of its architects and patrons. However, the The National Museum of African-American History and Culture a few blocks away gives the fact that the Smithsonian Castle, the Capitol Building and the White House were all built by slaves.
Is black history not also the history of the Smithsonian, if not American history writ large? Edits like this may indicate a faculty unwilling to reckon with ugly histories and frankly an unwillingness to reconcile with the communities affected. The info is out there…
From another front, voluntary docent guides, the backbone of visitor experience, take enough pride in the institution to work for free and are unwilling to put its name in ill repute. For that reason, I’d recommend more curatorial collaboration/guide training between the museums; a kind of peer review if you will.
A parallel is true of the The National Museum of the American Indian (the name, a problematic vestige from its previous incarnation in NYC) in relation to the NMAH (again, sorry about the acronyms!). The latter is a museum presumably tailored towards a mainstream audience, while the former has become a site of pilgrimage for families and a living memorial, given the controversial number of human remains and histories of genocide housed in the collection. Given this sensitive content, one thing the NMAI does particularly well in some of its display descriptions is that it clearly credits the individual who wrote them. In crediting the academics who write the display captions, they invite the Google-happy public to do their own research and add their own pinches of salt as required - an act of trust which many other Smithsonians can learn from.
Built in 2004, before a wave of indigenous rights discourse hit the mainstream in the 2010s (notably with the widespread renaming of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day) the NMAI is a patchwork of conscious and insensitive curation. Steered by a well-intentioned curation board, the NMAI is phasing out curatorial faux pas and gradually repatriating its collections. On our backstage tour at the NMAI, led by collections manager, C. Cali Martin, we learnt of the collaboration between communities, collections managers and the executive board to represent a history sidelined from dominant US historical narrative. Cali spoke about the museum’s openness to taking on suggestions from members of the nations represented in the public - for instance, the removal of medicine bundles from public view, or making sure that ceremonially male-handle-only objects are dealt with by exclusively male staff.
Of course, these nuances could be more readily implemented without first offending someone if there was better representation on the in-house curation team. However, Cali told us with regret that a mere 30% of the executive board and curatorial body is of indigenous heritage in the NMAI alone, meaning an even lower representation elsewhere in the Smithsonian. Poor representation in museum staff is the bitter fruit of wider social issues in employment and education among US indigenous communities. Maybe it’s an idea for museums to run traineeship/scholarship programmes, to sow sustainable stewardship of histories back into the communities from which they came.
I think now more than ever, the whitewashing histories undermines the authority and prestige of educational institutions. Fact-checking comes as second nature to many in the age of fake news. If something looks sketchy in their collection, any member of the public can just Google it and make a mockery of the institution on social media, right there on the spot. Art thou dizzy, cuz?
During a few of our discussions on issues of decolonialism, community engagement and repatriation, the issue was raised that some UK institutions are colonial as hell. YES! WE AGREE! London institutions (for instance, the British Museum and the V&A) contain collections built on imperialist wealth. While moves are being made towards transparency on their collections, there’s a great deal of euphemism there. Such as the case of John Sheepshanks (1787-1863), art collector and patron of the V&A: credited as the “son of a wealthy cloth manufacturer” in the freely available V&A archive research guide. But… we need to bear in mind that his inheritance was from a pre-abolition period, where the UK’s cotton was grown by exploitative labour in India and slaves on American plantations.
Point being, it’s in my hopes that better acknowledgement that larger museums in the US and UK have both profited from an interlinked imperial apparatus is the way forward as the Smithsonian and V&A come together on this upcoming project. History can be ugly, but the importance of sincere reconciliation ought to be respected if museums really are for the people.
Speaking of difficult histories: given the many voices of the institution, one thing that we noticed across many exhibits were their perspectives on war. Maybe it was because our visit coincided with a triple patriotic whammy of Memorial Day, National Police Week and the upcoming 75th D-Day Memorial… but I dunno, there was a sense of glorification. And while it was present in the NMAH, NPM and NMAAHC, it wasn’t as universal - as demonstrated by the Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975 exhibit at the SAAM.
After seeing the harrowing Don McCullin exhibition at the Tate Britain during the STEP bootcamp a few weeks earlier, I was especially shocked walking through the NMAH’s exhibit The Price of Freedom: Americans At War with its triumphant orchestral soundtrack. Words such as ‘Bravery’ on a waving US flag were projected onto the walls and there was almost no talk of the atrocities committed to civilian populations nor on pacifist groups in the US, persecuted by conscription drives. There were opportunities to take pictures by a helicopter, though.
On the other hand, McCullin’s images, especially those taken with US troops in Vietnam tell a story that’s altogether more rounded, albeit harder to swallow; of the soldiers, naturally frightened to die and kill, of families who were brutalised and starved by military action beyond their control, on all sides. I wonder if there’s something in the way galleries, in my experience, have had a generally more critical stance on war than museums. I’m just gonna put this wordy Bojack Horseman quote here in which Bojack runs off script while making a televised apology to an ex-Navy Seal:
“I am not deeply ambivalent about a seemingly mandated celebration of our military by a nation that claims to value peace telling our children that violence is never the answer while refusing to hold our own government to the same standard” (Bojack Horseman Season 1, Episode 2)
On a brighter note, senior reference specialist, Megan Harris, gave a workshop and talk at the Smithsonian Material Culture Forum at the NPG and SAAM in celebration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day (also quite pro-war in places). We got to look at the pictorial diaries of American prisoners of war - a great way to engage with history, hands on. These were made from makeshift materials found in the field, including flattened cigarette boxes, and gave very intimate personal histories - doodles, humour and horror included, from a first-person source. It was really cool to get a perspective of history directly from the front line and to humanise experiences of war. I think opportunities and workshops like these should play a bigger role in presenting exhibitions. As a zinemaker myself, it struck me as super relevant in a time of zine subculture revival - people have been at it for decades!
It’s grounding how in the end, the bustle of museums aside, history is written by our own hands, in our own voices.
Aaaaand, that’s all I have time for - stay tuned for my next post…!
You can find Mohammed's work on Instagram: @m.z.r.art
Illustrations by Mohammed Rahman