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1In the early 1950s, the administrators and curators of the United States National Museum (USNM) considered a number of substantial museum projects, convinced as they were that the National Museum needed major renovation. After much discussion of what the new museum should comprise, they eventually asked Congress to authorize and fund a new Museum of History and Technology (MHT), to be built on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., close to the other two National Museum buildings. Congress voted to authorize and fund the project in 1956 and the Museum of History and Technology opened its doors in 1964.
2The present article intends to contribute to the history of museum-building as nation-building.i The United States National Museum was operated by the Smithsonian Institution (SI), a private institution to which Congress entrusted federal funds. Museum-building implied a highly visible, and Congress-funded representation of the United States. This article proposes to recapture the spirit of the debate on the future museum in the wake of World War II and then, to discuss the representation of the United States that was housed in the MHT. It assesses the extent to which the museum broke new ground in picturing the United States, and addresses the question of permanence and transience in institutional representations of the nation.
3A decade after the victorious outcome of World War II, the USNM in Washington did not reflect the new prominence enjoyed by the United States in the world. The National Museum and the Old National Museumii were overcrowded; the state of collections and exhibitions left a younger generation of administrators and curators dissatisfied.
4Exhibitions were not considered a priority in the museum, as Frank Taylor, a central figure in the creation of the MHT, recollects:iii
There were galleries in which cases were deliberately pushed around and out of sequence to make cubby holes behind them for the storage of collections or even work spaces for scientists to work in.
5In the early 1950s the museum apeared almost unchanged from its appearance twenty years earlier, when Congress had put the SI at the bottom end of its budgetting priorities, pressed as it was by the Great Depression.iv World War II had not improved the USNM’s financial prospects; nor had the immediate afterwar years, when Congress announced that the war effort in Korea would delay any new substantial appropriations for the SI. Smithsonian administrators were frustrated that the United States did not have satisfying museums in Washington to match its new status. In 1974, Frank Taylor recounted his disappointment as he came back from the war in 1946. Back to work at the museum, where he was head of the Department of Engineering and Industries, he could see with a fresh eye the lackluster exhibitions he had become used to before the war.v In 1954, the leading figure of the SI, Secretary Leonard Carmichael,vi expressed the same feeling of inadequacy when he gravely told a subcommittee in Congress: '“the time will come when this Nation will have to provide more adequate museums than it does at the present time.”vii
6In light of these budget shortfalls, Smithsonian administrators, one could argue, were perhaps having dreams of grandeur and undue pretensions for their somehow outdated museum. The Metropolitan Museum in New York or the Field Musem in Chicago for instance had more prestige at the time than the Smithsonian had. What nevertheless made the Smithsonian special and what justified its leaders’ expectations was that the museum they operated was the USNM. As a government-funded exhibition of objects of national significance, the USNM could pretend to officially represent the United States.viii Its buildings were tellingly encamped on the National Mall, which is located close to the White House and at the foot of Capitol Hill.
7Expecting better treatment from Congress after victory in World War II, the Smithsonian secretary complained year after year in the Institution’s Annual Report that he lacked proper funding. In 1952, with the end of the Korean War in view, Congress made a substantial increase in the yearly Smithsonian appropriation.ix The appropriation was meant to launch an exhibitions modernization program that had a twelve-year span at the USNM. The long-awaited appropriation voted by Congress in 1952 gave more hopes to the Smithsonian leaders. The building projects that had been kept in store, and sometimes worked on during the war, reemerged. Firmly convinced that adequate renovation of exhibitions could not be done without additional space to work in, the curators and administrators promoted several building projects and competed for the Institution to give them top priority. The funds appropriated by Congress in 1952 for the renovation of exhibitions created a momentum among curators and administrators at the SI, which eventually led to the creation of a new museum building and a new presentation of the United States on the National Mall.
8Despite the existence of a museum from the beginnings of the Institution in 1846, the SI saw itself as essentially devoted to scientific research until the immediate postwar years. In 1946 the secretary of the Smithsonian, Alexander Wetmore, could describe the first hundred years of the SI without even mentioning the museum:
For 100 years the Smithsonian has carried forward Smithson’s ideal [the “increase and diffusion of knowledge”] through scientific research in many fields, through world-wide exploration, through publications embodying the results of original investigation, and through other accepted methods of increasing and diffusing information.x
9With the modernization of exhibitions in full swing, the National Museum gained new prominence in the Institution and never faded into the background. It was the starting point for the realization of a museum-building project in the 1950s.
10The idea of a MHT had roots in the Institution’s past. At the end of World War II, several projects were envisioned, among which the building of new wings for the National Museum, a history museum and a Museum of Engineering and Industries. By 1948 an assistant secretary was appointed to work on a projected National Air Museum. By 1954 a Fine Arts Gallery was also among the projects appearing on the horizon.
11The potential museums (or additions, in the case of the National Museum wings) were not at the same planning stage. The wings had been authorized by Congress in 1930, but no appropriation had subsequently been voted to foot the bill.xi The first mention of a history museum and an industrial museum in the Smithsonian annual reports dates back to 1919, which does not mean that the two projects were much more advanced than the wings in the immediate post war years. In 1945, a Public Buildings Actxii included the authorization to build both, but in 1946 appropriations to actually build the museums never came, due to shortages in building materials.
12The common point to all the projects was their national focus. Despite the international scope of natural history collections at the Smithsonian, the collections—as in any natural history museum founded in the nineteenth century—had strong nationalist foundations. They were from their inception linked to the discovery and mastery of the continent, its inhabitants, its flora and fauna. The Smithsonian collection of prehistoric mastodons testified to the awesome beings that had populated the continent, and illustrated the triumph of American naturalists, who in the last decades of the nineteenth century boasted better collections than their European colleagues.xiii Natural history was the dominant feature in the National Museum but the museum also housed substantial collections in anthropology, art and history. Since 1930 and up to 1950, the building of new wings for the natural history-dominated National Museum had been a priority at the Smithsonian.xiv Such a building priority backed a certain type of representation of the United States, based on the systematic classification and presentation of specimens that prevailed in Natural History museums.
13Another project with a national focus was a history museum. In the museum, the divisions would have been Civil History, Naval History, Military History, Numismatic History and Philatelic History—an organizational chart almost similar to the one in use in the contemporary Old National Museum, and later the basis for part of the MHT’s organizational chart. The History Museum project stressed the “development of the American nation,”xv featuring national history as both development and constant progress.
14The same progress-oriented perspective prevailed in the project for a Museum of Engineering and Industries initiated by Carl Mitman. Carl Mitman had promoted the project since the early 1920s, when he was curator in the division of Mechanical Technology, and later as he became head curator of the Department of Arts and Industries. In the interwar years and during the war, he was backed in the Old National Museum by Frank Taylor (whom he had hired) and by his superiors, John Graf and John Keddy.xvi Mitman presented his pet project to Assistant Secretary Alexander Wetmore in 1944 as “a museum depicting America’s contributions to the material progress of civilization.”xvii In the narration of technological progress, it was understood that the United States was to be celebrated as a major contributor and that the national history was synonymous with progress.xviii
15After the war, Alexander Wetmore who was now secretary of the Institution involved the SI in a National Air Museum project. The project had been initiated in 1945 by General Henry Arnold, commanding general of the Army Air Force during World War II, who was concerned with exhibiting the technology that had been put to effective use in the skies over Europe and the Pacific. The project got governmental authorization—but no financial backing—in 1946, when Congress swiftly voted the creation of a National Air Museum advisory board under the aegis of the SI.xix The board envisioned the future National Air Museum as “memorial, inspirational, commemorative, ... showing only the principal advances in the field.”xx
16Finally, a separate building for the gallery of fine arts would have produced yet another representation of the United States. George Brown Goode, the assistant secretary in charge of the National Museum in the 1890s had had such a project, and Secretary Carmichael drew his inspiration directly from him as he told Congress in 1954 that the gallery could feature the following objects:
pictures of historical importance to the Nation, but possibly not fine or great art from the standpoint of technical and esthetic evaluation, and art that is a portrayal of great military and civil leaders and so on.xxi
17There was already an art museum within the USNM but a separate building would have meant expansion of this particular aspect of the museum.
18A hall of fame and a set of founding fathers (in a broad sense) are key elements in the creation of a nationalist narrative; it is therefore not surprising that the need to commemorate great Americans was expressed in another project. According to a document planning for the history museum, the museum, had it actually come into being, would have had a biographical section in each division. The civil history section, for instance, would have featured one biographical subdivision. It would exhibit “Busts, portraits and personnal memorabilia of noted American men and women who have contributed to the development of the American nation.”xxii
19Not only did the above projects share a mainly national focus; they also shared a deep committment to progress as a key to historical understanding. Progress would either appear in the form of evolution in natural history, as human progress in political history or in the industrial achievements of the United States. Beyond the variety of projects, there was an implicit consensus as to what the Smithsonian was meant to say, and how. The competition between the building projects should therefore be understood as a competition between curatorial realms, with each group defending its province: the natural historians were in favor of first building wings to their building for example, and it is no wonder that the main promoter of an Engineering and Industries museum should have been Frank Taylor, the then head curator of the Department of Engineering and Industries.
20Since the advent of encyclopaedic museums in the nineteenth century, the aim of curators had been to explain the world around them through various collections and exhibitions. In an age of rising nationalism, their explanation of the world had been unwittingly informed by national categories, and resulted in museums that pictured the world from a nationalist perspective, despite their universalist aspirations. The official seal of the SI was a typical case in point, as it displayed the universalist motto of the Institution—“for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men”—above a map of the American continent centered on North America; the map was framed by the latin words per orbem.xxiii The USNM reflected this ambivalent mission statement, as Congress had given it responsibility for the preservation and exhibition of national historical memorabilia, as well as for the world wide collections belonging to the United States.xxiv As the second half of the twentieth century began, the ambivalence had not disappeared. After the war, the top officers at the SI actively promoted their building program, which implied the development of a more or less acknolwledged staging of the United States in museum form. It thus appears that picturing the United States was not necessarily felt by the curators and administrators to be their foremost aim, although the museum did play that role.
Smithonian Institution Seal
Smithsonian Institution Archives
21That construction should take precedence over presentation made sense at the time since the daily effort of Smithsonian adminstrators was of a more practical nature, as they strived to submit convincing projects to Congress. Smithsonian administrators were first prompted into action by organizational motives; they operated an institution and wanted it to prosper. The postwar annual reports of the SI testified to this urgent feeling that the Institution was both under-staffed and under-funded. In 1948, Secretary Wetmore complained for the third consecutive year that the Institution was “still handicapped by certain shortages in personnel and especially by lack of adequate buildings.”xxv After a long period of modest means, institutional growth and museographic upgrading were an alluring prospect for the Smithsonian.
22This does not mean that representing the United States in the USNM was in any way an alien prospect to its administrators and personnel in the immediate postwar years. It was simply not their most pressing concern. While the Smithsonian people no doubt shared in the victorious mood of post war years, it should not be assumed that they were nationalists insofar as they did not have a militant or outstanding committment to the promotion of the United States. Their national categories should be understood as “a way of being in the world to which we are all subjected, rather than simply, someone else’s political ideology,” to quote Benedict Anderson’s definition of nationalism.xxvi
23The building program championed by Smithsonian officials in the early 1950s included securing congressional funding for new wings for the Natural History Building, and congressional authorization for buildings for a history museum, for a museum of engineering and industries, and for the national zoological park.xxvii This was an ambitious program, and federal administrators urged the Smithsonian to pool all its space needs in one building project.xxviii
24So instead of wings for Natural History, a history museum and a Museum of Engineering and Industries, common ground had to be found to combine everyone’s expectations into one single building. In the process that eventually led to the authorization by Congress of a MHT in 1956, there was no overarching view that shaped the decision process from the start. Rather, the process was a collective one, which involved the Smithsonian head curators and administrators. Once they were told that a common project was to replace the competing wings and other buildings, the curatorial and administrative staff did not really know what they wanted, except that they wanted to find a convincing idea to obtain congressional funding.
25It was out of this cooperative environment that the short-lived project of a Museum of Man came into being. The Museum of Man project was a distant echo of George Brown Goode’s writings in the late nineteenth century.xxix Goode hoped to turn the National Museum into a new museum genre, which he described as “the natural history of civilization, of man and his ideas and achievements.”xxx In the 1893 annual report, he listed the main directions the national museum should take, namely:
the exposition of the geology and natural history of America and its natural resources, ... the preservation of memorials of its aboriginal inhabitants, and the encouragement of the arts and industries of our own people.xxxi
26In an unsigned document entitled “the Museum of Man,” one of the top Smithsonian officers said:
The planning for the building should consider it not merely as a means of relieving congestion and of enlarging existing museum activities but as a challenge to produce a museum of the highest professional character and the maximum usefulness to the Nation.xxxii
27The prospect of additional space was obviously a critical one to curators; the idea of a new building came first, and its justification had to be found in order to obtain the building from Congress. Still, a general direction for the building was provided by the same document. It simultaneously gave the future museum a universalist name—Museum of Man—and a national focus:
The building is needed to provide space for the development of an adequate national museum which will set before the people the background, history, development and meaning of the United States.xxxiii
28The Museum of Man was to be universalist in the sense that it went back before the official birth of the United States in 1776, and beyond a eurocentric view of its roots reaching back to 1492. Relying on the archeological, historical and technological collections at the Smithsonian, its narrative would have started with ancient times up to the present, and would have linked anthropology to history in a common venture: the study of human technological progress from the quasi-beginning. In practice, the Museum of Man would have had a strong American flavor under the leadership of Frank Taylor: “We would treat the whole history of man with particular reference to America and to the United States,” Frank Taylor recollected.xxxiv Still the Museum of Man’s universalist name was meant as such. At a meeting of the planning committee for the Museum of Man in late 1952, the suggested alternatives were: “Hall of Humanity, Gallery of Civilization, Human History Hall, or Human History building [as opposed to Natural History Building].”xxxv
29In fact, two discourses coexisted: on one side a universalist perspective with a museum that would illustrate “the development of man and civilization”xxxvi and on the other a nationalist one which aim would be to “produce a panorama of United States history in ethnology, politics, science, war, culture and industry.”xxxvii In 1952, a memo by Frank Taylor had already mentioned the project as being a “Museum of America.” xxxviii When asked to develop the concept of a Museum of Man during a meeting on 9 January 1953, the head curators suggested “American Heritage” for “the proposed new museum building presently called Museum of Man.”xxxix This indicates the relative distance with the project’s name, which would soon be replaced.
30There are two complementary ways of accounting for this seeming contradiction in the stated objectives of the Museum of Man project. First, there might have been some disagreement among the anthropologists and historians on the national or universal scope of the museum to be, as is suggested by the withdrawal of anthropologists from the project. Besides, far from being a contradictory discourse in the mind of its authors, the juxtaposition of national and universal arguments was a good example of universalist nationalism. This variant of nationalist discourse, to which many nation-states resort, considers the nation as the epitome of humanity, while national values are wide enough to embrace the world.xl
31If there were some proponents of a more universalist museum project, they obviously failed to make themselves heard. The project eventually narrowed to a more nation-specific focus, for which the name “Museum of Man” was no longer appropriate or even indicative of the museum’s purpose. That the name “Museum of Man” became an empty shell is evidenced by a memo entitled “Museum of Man” and expounding the concept of the museum. This document was found in an administrative folder on the MHT, and its title was crossed and a new title had been handwritten. It read “now MHT” and still had the same contents.xli
32By 1953 the Museum of Man was set aside and replaced by a MHT project. Frank Taylor was so enthusiastic, resourceful and forward going with his engineering and industries project that he set the tone for the new museum. We might infer from that that there was not a matching effort geared to the completion of a Museum of Man, or at least that the support for it was insufficient.
33Eventually, the Museum of Man project did not become a museum because there were more pressing needs. Universalism, even universalist nationalism, was not appealing enough either to the curators and administrators, or to Congress. There was a need for a Smithsonian—consecrated narrative with a national focus to be enshrined in a museum and the MHT would be satisfactory in this respect.
34Once the name “Museum of History and Technology” was chosen, the question of the focus of the museum was not entirely solved. After all, the MHT’s name did not refer to the United States. For Frank Taylor, the main designer of the MHT, it went without saying that the museum would be about American history and technology. Although some (rare) voices pleaded for a more explicit national focus inscribed in the name for the museum, Taylor did not make that choice:
finally we decided to ... let the assumption prevail that it is history of the United States that we’re talking about, because of the fact that it’s a national museum.xlii
35According to Taylor, it was so obvious that the museum would be a museum on the United States that an explicitly national name for the MHT was superfluous.
36On 23 January 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson officially inaugurated the MHT. The decorum of the opening events and the 2,200 invited guests—among which foreign diplomats, Congressmen and cabinet members—made the opening a national and even international event.xliii The national press made it quite clear that what was at stake was the representation of the United States. The headlines in the Washington Post read “Museum is Shrine to Rise of the U.S. as Nation,” while the New York Times called the museum a “showcase for [the] Nation’s History.”xliv
37From the curators’ perspective, the exhibiting mission of the museum was not that straight-forward, as a closer look at the exhibitions in the museum will show. On entering the museum through its Constitution Avenue entrance, the visitor came across Foucault’s pendulum, a striking nineteenth century device that demonstrated the earth’s rotation.xlv Named after its French inventor Jean-Bernard Foucault, this exhibit was the focal point of the first floor, which was dedicated to history of technology and science. As the pendulum suggests, the first floor was not restricted to American technology and science.
38Coming through the National Mall Entrance, the visitor faced another starting point for the understanding of the museum. Exhibited in the rotunda on the second floor was the original Star Spangled Banner, the one Francis Scott Key drew his inspiration from when he wrote the words that were later on to become the national anthem. It was a fitting introduction to the exhibitions on the second floor, which were dedicated to American history.xlvi There is no evidence that American history was symbolically meant to be one floor above history of technology. The reason why technology and science exhibits were one floor below American history was instead a practical one, since the heavier exhibits were more conveniently installed on the ground floor.
39The flag was solemnly exhibited as a relic under the high dome of the rotunda and was unanimously hailed by the press as the building’s focal point.xlvii The Flag Hall was also given first place in the Smithsonian Annual Report, but the report gave a more prominent role to the pendulum than the press did. It listed the exhibition areas that opened to the public in January 1964 as follows:xlviii
the Flag Hall, First Ladies Hall, and the Halls of Everyday Life in the American Past , American Costume, Farm Machinery, Light Machinery, Tools, Vehicles, Railroads, a portion of Heavy Machinery, the Greenough Statue of George Washington flanked by eight cases of outstanding national treasures, the centrally located Foucault pendulum, and a temporary exhibition which present[ed] examples of exhibits to be installed in other halls of the museum.xlix
41Because the Smithsonian Annual Report was written primarily for Congress and as a public relations tool, the prominent place given to the Flag Hall in accounts of the opening does not necessarily reflect the curators’ understanding of the museum.
42Among the four departments of the MHT, two departments, namely Civil History and Armed Forces History, had a national scope.l The two other departments, Arts and Manufactures and Science and Technology, had a broader approach, since most of their exhibitions had both a universal and a national focus. In the numismatics exhibition, the section “history of money” started with the Ancient times and money-less economies, went on with European history up to the discovery of the New World, the fifteenth-century currency in Mexico, and ended with a monetary history of the United States. Similarly, the history section in the Hall of Philately and Postal History started with a “history of the world’s posts,” from early Mesopotamian posts to the British postal system in the nineteenth century. It proceeded with American postal history and ended with a section on the United Nations, as an international conclusion. The same approach to world history could be found in halls as diverse as medical history, heavy machinery or civil engineering.li
43The broad scope of those exhibitions is ample proof that the curators meant them to be more than exhibitions on the United States. At another level perhaps superseding the conscious intent of curators, the exhibitions nevertheless illustrated a philosophy of history framed by nationalism. In most exhibitions, the historical filiation of the United States followed the same path, from Ancient civilizations in the Middle East, to Europe from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to the nineteenth century; the next historical sequence was the United States up to the present. There were very few instances of historical events outside this selection of times and places, which were a cultural construct of national origins rather than a world history.
44The Philately Hall is a particularly interesting one in this respect. Its creator, Carl Scheele, was perhaps more committed to the international dimension of his hall than other curators, as demonstrated by his “world history of the posts” and by the section on the United Nations. Even those two sections, which were meant to go beyond the United States, were frought with nationalist preconceptions. Despite a token case on “oriental posts” documenting “the origins and development of early Chinese and Japanese postal systems before 1870,” the historical section displayed the origins of modern posts, and was geared to U.S. postal history. The section on the United Nations revealed another aspect of the strength of the national principle. It described the world postal administration, which issued stamps that could only be used from the headquarters of the United Nations. Those stamps were used as a pretext for a history of the United Nations. Through stamps, the curator celebrated international cooperation and presented the world as a body of nations. In the political context of decolonization and with the creation of numerous nation-states, explaining the world in the museum meant presenting the world’s nations.lii
45A world-wide perspective on any given subject seemed to be of more value than a mere national perspective to many curators. As a foil to the world-wide approach, some of them even broached the subject of nationalism, which they understood as a negative term, and as an attitude to be avoided in the museum. Robert Multhauf, who was head curator of the Department of Science and Technology when the museum opened, later said:
[The European museums of science and technology] tend to have a strong nationalistic bent. In my opinion, we have less nationalistic orientation than any of the others—although I’ve heard a charge that we also have nationalistic orientation. That gets involved in the fact that it’s easier for us to get specimens relating to Americans than it is specimens relating to other people.liii
46Robert Vogel, the curator of Civil Engineering, similarly reflected on the pitfalls of nationalism in museum practice.
One of the most difficult aspects in the choice of materials to be included in a historical presentation based on their “significance,” is the question of nationality, an area in which it is treacherously easy to become arbitrary. A policy followed throughout the Hall [of Civil Engineering] (and for that matter, generally throughout the Museum) is the departure from the strictly nationalistic approach to history so noticeable in a number of the great European technical museums. No effort is made to distort history by selecting exhibits to give the viewer the impression that America has been the seat of all important development. … On the other hand, where there is legitimate evidence that parallel developments occurred simultaneously here and elsewhere, it is only natural that the American contribution is cited or, in certain cases, an American application of a foreign innovation is shown.liv
47From those assertions, it seems safe to assume that a certain number of curators did not mean the MHT to be only national in scope. Things would be simple enough if the same people did not hold slightly contradictory views on the subject. Two months before making the above statement, Robert Multhauf had presented a very different vision of the MHT to his interviewer:
This building was justified to Congress on the grounds that we have the sacred relics of American history; and so I always viewed our job to be to exhibit the sacred relics of American history; and American history like the history of any country, goes across the board and can be pigeon-holed into physics, chemistry, military history and so forth.lv
48The typical attitude of curators and administratorslvi was a mixture of assertion and denial of the national scope of the museum. This was complicated by the fact that the boundary between the more nationalist official discourse aimed at Congress and the more universalist discourse that was valued inside the museum was not always clear. The focus of the museum was not explicitly national until 1980, when the name of the museum changed to National Museum of American History. This entailed a new policy, and restricted collecting activities to artifacts from the United States.
49The MHT did change the perspective on the National Mall. The size and prestige of the new museum put history, including history of technology, on a foot of equality with natural history, which was housed in a comparably dignified building on the Mall. In the space devoted to the representation of the United States, the national technological superiority and national history gained equal status with the national mastery of the natural world.
50The new focus on history went hand in hand with a change in exhibition techniques: the new principle that was to preside over exhibition-making at the MHT was narration. Since the beginning of the modernization program that had started in 1952, exhibitions had been refurbished in the USNM with the idea that some of them could then directly be transfered to the new museum. Exhibition making would now shift from exhaustive exhibition of study collections meant for scientists and the enlightened amateur to a selected display of representative objects, as Leonard Carmichael told Congress:
Instead of having one case of crowded articles that mean nothing to the general visitor, no matter how well educated, we will try to make exhibits that instruct and tell a story. … [I]n other words, we want to transform our exhibits from mere collections of artifacts … into a coherent picture that will educate and instruct each visitor.lvii
51Leonard Carmichael was not totally fair in his presentation of the former way of making exhibitions, which was underlied by what Steven Conn called the “object-based epistemology”lviii of the late nineteenth century: museum objects were then thought to be meaningful for the careful observer and they were systematically organized and displayed in cases for the public. This taxonomical organization was derived from systematic biology, the leading discipline in the museum field in the late nineteenth century. Museum exhibitions presented “the metanarrative of evolutionary progress,”lix whether it be in biology, or by analogy, in other fields like national history. This logic appealed to the Victorian mind of late nineteenth-century museum makers but had become rather alien to museum people in the wake of World War II.
52The new type of exhibitions was concretely achieved thanks to a museographic “revolution,” according to Frank Taylor:
[The idea] was to get objects off of shelves onto vertical surfaces on which graphics and texts and objects would all be combined in compositions like pages out of text books or magazines.lx
53The analogy with the written page is revealing of the priority that was now given to narration. This was most clearly examplified by the Hall of Numismatics, which complemented the previously existing coins and medals displays with a substantial history of money, and which demonstrated machines related to the making of coins and medals. The greatness of the United States would now be demonstrated by narrative devices, rather than by the best and most judiciously organized collection of objects and artifacts. The pre-eminence of narration in the grammar of museum language was soon to influence the naming of exhibitions: from the late sixties on, exhibitions began having titles like books—Growth of the United States, for instance—whereas they used to be called “Hall of Medicine” or “Hall of Machinery” before.lxi
54The new emphasis on American history on the National Mall was also influenced by an organizational turning point at the Smithsonian. It corresponded with a period of fast professionalization of exhibition designers and curators alike. The rise in status of exhibition designers, as well as the professionalization of curators, which were now often courted out of academe,lxii was essential to the epistemological breakthroughs in exhibitions such as the Hall of Everyday Life in the American Past or Growth of the United States.
55Malcolm C. Watkins, a Harvard graduate and curator in cultural history, was in charge of the former. He was an advocate of archeological history, which borrowed the archeological method from the fields of ethnology and Ancient History, and applied it to the early history of the United States. Historical archeology was widely used at the National Park Service, which started displaying archeological-historical findings in its park museums in the interwar years. In the 1950s, it was breaking new ground at the USNM, where historiographic methods were more conservative.lxiii Malcolm Watkins’ Hall of Everyday Life in the American Past displayed real houses, which illustrated construction methods and which interiors were used as period rooms.lxiv Anthony N.B. Garvan, a Yale graduate and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was in charge of Growth of the United States. Although never completed, the hall was innovative in that it had a holistic approach to history. The usual approach to exhibiting objects reflected the partition between curatorial divisions. This meant that transportation was displayed apart from civil engineering for instance, or that the department of cultural history was separated from textiles and ceramics, which were discrete divisions of the department of arts and manufactures. In contrast with this approach, Anthony Garvan was allowed to select objects from any curatorial division to make an integrated panorama of American history.lxv Both Garvan and Watkins pioneered cultural history at the SI and tried to account for American culture through objects. This entailed a different focus on the United States, the hagiographic cases on great men somehow receding in the background to the advantage of a history of common people. In this respect, social and cultural history did change the representation of the United States at the MHT.
56It would nevertheless be difficult to make generalizing statements on the methodology used by the curators, because of the great diversity in the exhibiting philosophy at the MHT. Even within a single exhibition, the remarkable independence enjoyed by the curators and the juxtaposition of different projects resulted in rather heterogeneous epistemological choices.lxvi The Historical Americans Hall for instance displayed some objects in a fetichist way, asserting their value because they had been connected with famous Americans. The exhibition of relics in cases devoted to great men was a conservative method that contrasted sharply with the use of an innovative parade of marching mannekins, illustrating political campaigning in American history. The same hall also juxtaposed different versions of who “historical Americans” were, as a modest section on the women’s rights movement coexisted with memorabilia of the presidential families.lxvii
57Besides the halls devoted to political and cultural history, the exhibition of technology and science contributed to the national historical narrative. As mentioned earlier, the chronology started with Ancient times and always ended with the culmination of science and technology in the contemporary United States. The exhibiting method of the curators was more consistent than in the Department of Civil History. The science and technology exhibitions were historical displays that traced the technical developments and inventions in transportation, mechanical and civil engineering, electricity, physical and medical sciences.
58Their approach to the history of science was immediately criticized by Dillon Ripley, the new secretary of the SI, as being cut from the fabric of society, and artificially set apart from the cultural developments that gave birth to scientific innovation or that resulted from technological breakthroughs. Ripley’s criticism even resulted in the cancellation of a Hall of Chemistry which was in an advanced stage of planning.lxviii It should nevertheless be acknowledged that the science and technology halls stood in sharp contrast with the technology exhibitions in the Old National Museum. With very few exceptions, the curators had discarded the taxonomic approach and had adopted a narrative history mode in their halls.
59The coherence of juxtaposing what was called history and technology seems to have been nonproblematic at the time. If, as Robert Multhauf contends, the exhibiting philosophy in the department of science and technology was historical, there was some imbalance in the name of the museum. Technology was a part of history but was set apart as a special category. In the early 1950s, Frank Taylor recalls, someone suggested adding history to the “Museum of Science and Technology” project.
[That] was a new idea but was agreeable to me because the people in military history, for example, had technical interests in transportation, and the technology of war and ships, so there was a relationship of sorts.”lxix
60In 1955, Secretary Carmichael offered a more elaborate argument to a congressional subcommittee:
This combination [history and science, engineering and industry] is most appropriate for a Nation in which the industrial revolution achieved a most satisfactory flowering—matching the earlier American Revolution that gave our country its freedom and its unique institutions.lxx
61The rather weak and disparate justifications offered by Taylor and Carmichael reveal the lack of conceptual coherence that presided over the creation of the MHT, whose planners had to cope with the material, institutional and organizational legacy of the Arts and Industries department in the Old National Museum.
62During construction, the MHT was boastfully presented to the press as an innovative new museum genre by Frank Taylor:
We lay no claim to being the largest museum in the world, but ours will cover the widest scope of any. Under one roof, we hope to show the combined history and technology of a great nation.lxxi
63To what extent the museum genre and contents was actually new is a complex issue. The MHT had its roots in the Old National Museum; it was an intricate mix of continuity and change. Most of the backbone of the new museum—the collections and their organization—remained the same. The MHT was heir to the Arts and Industries department in the Old National Museum, which belonged to a museum genre reaching back to nineteenth-century museography, when the boundary between art—as craftsmanship—and industry was blurred. This is why very different curatorial realms, including costumes and heavy machinery, did coexist.
64As shown above, there were also obvious changes, among which a brand new museum building, state-of-the-art exhibitions made by substantially new staff, and a new historiographical perspective. The new national narrative presented in the MHT nevertheless rested on the same assumptions as those previously underlying the USNM. It was a little innovative cultural construct. The museographic and epistemological breakthroughs more effectively expounded the main tenet of a consensus national narrative: American history as progress, and progress as science, through a narrative-oriented type of exhibition. In 1954, Secretary Carmichael skillfully played on the popular assumption—the United States equated to progress, hence science—to put public opinion on his side. “This nation, which prides itself on its great technological advances, is in the gaslight, horse-and-buggy stage in telling its story,” he told the New York Times.lxxii In 1962, as the MHT was being built, the Los Angeles Times announced that the museum would “include just about everything showing American history and progress.” When all the fifty halls of the museum would eventually open, the museum would be “a parade of American historical and scientific progress.”lxxiii What Leonard Carmichael told the New York Times was typical Smithsonian public relations talk, and was in tune with the headlines in the press. It did not reflect the more scholarly tone of curators. That was however a mere difference in style, as the basic narrative structure of the museum, for which the curators were collectively responsible, enhanced progress as a philosophy of history, and placed the United States at the culmination of historical progress.
65The relative permanence in ideas at the Smithsonian about what the United States was was in part due to the continuum between the Engineering and Industries Museum project of the interwar years and the MHT. Frank Taylor, who was crucial to the creation of the MHT, had started working in the Old National Museum under Carl Mitman, who was the main advocate of an Engineering and Industries Museum. Mitman’s project was the starting point for Taylor, who later had to compromise with the advocates of a history museum.
66The rhetoric to convince Congress was another strong continuum between the two projects. It relied on the same principles of competition between the nations and highlighted technology as the standard by which to measure progress. In 1920, as Carl Mitman campaigned for an Engineering and Industries Museum comparable to South Kensington in England or to the Deutsches Museum in Germany, he connected the greatness of the United States with technological progress.
The commanding place in the world which the United States has reached in the short space of seventy-five years is due largely to the full development and utilization of mechanical power in the exploitation of her natural resources. It is this that has made possible for the people of the United States to enjoy a standard of living far and above that under which the peoples of the rest of the world exist and still no public sign of appreciation either national or otherwise is to be found anywhere. What more suitable monument could there be, therefore, than a museum of Engineering, and where could there be found a more logical place for it than as part of the great National Museum?lxxiv
67In the 1920s as in the 1950s, this understanding of technology as a showcase for the United States was meant to demonstrate national superiority. In both cases, the United States’ rank in the world was a central argument in favor of a new museum. In the 1920s, the museum was to put the Smithsonian at least on a foot of equality with European technological museums, and it would show American scientific superiority over Europe. In the first decade of the Cold War, building the MHT, Carmichael told Congress, was vital to winning the competition with the U.S.S.R.:
Our situation is even more incredible when we consider the lengths to which nations behind the Iron Curtain will go to impress the world with their so-called scientific and cultural advances. ... Recently the Russians announced plans to convert the entire Kremlin into a great national museum glorifying the Russian state. ... Can we—confident in our knowledge of the good things that our way of life brings to all our citizens—dare we fail to demonstrate to our visitors the progress that has made our free nation great ? Here, then, is an area in which the Smithsonian can uniquely serve an outstanding national need.lxxv
68After close consideration of the blueprints of change within the Smithsonian and the resulting new museum, there is evidence that the work of administrators and curators reflected a remarkably stable conception of the United States. The only notable change took place in the civil history exhibitions, where social history gained some ground on the history of great men. The really significant development was that in the mid-1950s, the executive and legislative branches of government were convinced of the need for a new museum. Boosted by what they accurately understood to be a favorable context, Smithsonian officials submitted a number of new projects for congressional approval. They did use the argument that their victorious country needed better museums, and the new museum they could not obtain in the interwar years was won from government because the United States was victorious. The change signaled a shift in mentalities in that congressional funding had not been requested by the Smithsonian for the Engineering and Industries museum project in the 1920s. There was to be private funding or no museum. The potential sources of funding were the societies of the mechanical, mining, civil and electrical engineers.lxxvi If the building of the MHT reflected a new understanding of the United States, it was a significant governmental change of priorities, and not only change that occurred at the Smithsonian.
69The effect was that the new museum was partly comprised of old ideas: there was a thirty-year time lag between the moment when Carl Mitman claimed the need for a Museum of Engineering and Industries and the moment when it was accepted—in a somehow different form, as part of a MHT. It then took eight years for the museum to be completed, meaning that the museographic outcome of needs felt in the 1920s was presented to the public in a political and cultural context that was utterly different. George Browne Goode, the assistant secretary of the SI in charge of the National Museum, had initially thought of an industrial museum. He also evoked a possible history museum in 1888,lxxvii and that project was given new impetus in the wake of World War I. In 1964, when the MHT first opened its doors, the original impulses for the museum were far behind and the context in which visitors discovered the museum was radically different. The slow institutional move from museum project to actual museum in part accounts for the stable nature of museographic depictions of the United States at the SI.
70In the postwar years, the MHT was the project that came to a successful end amidst a number of other projects. In the light of the Smithsonian’s role as “a temple of national identity,”lxxviii the discussion on how to expand the Institution in the wake of World War II and the subsequent building of the MHT should be envisioned as an episode in the history of civil religion in the United States.lxxix
71The Smithsonian administrators realized in the early fifties that Congress responded favorably to calls for better exhibitions, while the attendance figures at the Smithsonian soared. For the year 1951, the total number of visitors at the Institution neared the three-million mark. In 1964, in the six-month period between the opening of the MHT in January and the publishing of the annual report in June, the Institution boasted 2.5 million visitors for the new museum only.lxxx This was not specific to the Smithsonian, as museum-going boomed in Europe and in North America after World War II. The new attendance figures, the new attitude to museums within the Smithsonian personnel and the opening of the MHT thanks to congressional funding together shared in a same phenomenon—a renewal of nationalist ritual.
72As shown above, the MHT did not present a new national creed. What the MHT functionally changed was not the creed, but the form of nationalist ritual at the Smithsonian. Rituals, in Durkheim’s words, are “representations or systems of representation that express the nature of sacred things.” They are “rules of conduct that prescribe how man should behave with sacred things.”lxxxi The MHT was a new way to relate to the United States. It was a welcome replacement for the Old National Museum, which was more or less fondly called the “nations’s attic.” The Smithsonian personnel got used to the prominence of its visitors-oriented museums, whereas its chief understanding of its national role until the early 1950s had been its scientific contribution to the welfare of the nation. Twenty years after the end of the war, the new museum that had been conceived in the victorious atmosphere of the late Forties and in the tense atmosphere of the early Cold War opened its doors. After its opening in 1964, the MHT would—like a ritual—contribute an understanding of the sacred—the United States—and a way for American citizens, visitors and museum staff alike, to relate to their homeland.
73[I conducted research for this article thanks to a fellowship awarded to me by the Smithsonian Institution in 2006. I would like to give special thanks to Pam Henson at the Smithsonian Institution Archives for her generous help and her insightful comments on an early draft of this article. MP]
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Marie Plassart, « Narrating “America”: », European journal of American studies [Online], 2-1 | 2007, document 6, Online since 24 August 2007, connection on 26 April 2017. URL : http://ejas.revues.org/1184 ; DOI : 10.4000/ejas.1184Top of page