History Is More Than Telling Stories

One of the great advantages of living in the DC area is the easy proximity to the Smithsonian Institution, one of the world’s great museums.

But that doesn’t mean I think the organization is perfect. They still have many areas of improvement to work on, and I don’t at all mind offering some constructive criticism from time to time. Even a little praise when warrented.1

Anyway, this post is actually in that latter category, about how the Smithsonian did a pretty good job with a major new exhibition.

After five years of planning and construction, last December the American History Museum opened a section called Entertainment Nation. It collects together and displays hundreds of artifacts related to movies, television, stage shows, and more from their vast collection.

Items like a pair of ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz and chairs from Archie Bunker’s TV living room have been presented in various exhibits over the years but this is the first time so many of these cultural objects are seen in one place.

However, the Smithsonian curators have done something very different this time.

Rather than just placing the items in a case with a card describing them on the side, they approached the whole topic of entertainment from a unique (for the Smithsonian) perspective.

The one-sentence explanation of their conceptual underpinnings is on display near the entrance to the exhibit.

The description for each artifact and image includes something about how the entertainment or performer either challenged American societal norms through their art or how their work was altered, restricted, or otherwise impacted by events of the day.

The picture at the top is one example. Along side The Lone Ranger’s mask, curators also present a little about the racism that Jay Silverheels had to face in real life while portraying Tonto, the trusty sidekick, as well as his activism to improve the treatment of Native Americans.

As for Superman, he was, of course, portrayed on-screen as the all-American good guy. But the producers of the 1950’s series completely steered away from involving him with any of the national controversies of that era. Instead they relegated the “man of steel” to chasing after bank robbers and mob bosses.

Of course, Entertainment Nation is just one corner of one of the many Smithsonian properties spread across DC and they have a lot of work to do in bringing this approach to other parts of the system.

But this does offer a little hope that museum administrators and curators are beginning to better understand their job of educating the people who visit their museums. Instead of just collecting, storing, and displaying artifacts.

Now, if they could just put more effort into making their exhibits more interactive with the audience… 

1. Not that anyone over there is actually reading anything in this little corner of the web.

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