History, Collections, and Objects

For a long time, I have been interested in the interplay between objects and the multiple meanings assigned to them, whether by individual collectors, museums, and the public. In the introduction to Interpreting Objects and Collections, Susan Pearce reminds us of our general understanding that museums exist to hold objects from the past, that they have a specific role to play in helping “us”—the visitor, the society at large—understand our past.[1] For the typical visitor to a museum, this working understanding of museums tends to assume that the collection of objects simply happens, yet there is indeed a method to the madness, as it were: “Notions of what creates value are very complex and so are the related processes of social change and the relationship of the material world to these movements.”[2]

Gaynor Kavanagh asserts in History Curatorship that the history museum’s aim is “to encapsulate the physical and oral evidence of being and behaving”.[3] As such, those working in these spaces must also be mindful of the social language communicated to visitors—that the objects placed on display provide visitors with cultural frameworks which articulate the norms and values of a group, culture, or nation.[4] As the National Museum of American History (NMAH) opened its doors in 1964, I became intrigued by the idea that the museum’s history might have impacted its methods of collecting, and in turn, the objects placed on display. This wondering led me to conduct some brief research to uncover a fuller story of the museum’s past.

What we now know as NMAH was originally the Museum of History and Technology (MHT). It was the brainchild of Frank Taylor, who began his work at the Smithsonian in 1922.[5] Originally conceived as a museum of engineering and industry, a history department was added to gain the support of political history curators.[6] The idea gained new life in the years following WWII; Leonard Carmichael, then Secretary of the Smithsonian, remarked that it was “incredible that United States, which has given such substantial aid to cultural activities in other countries, does not have equally great national museums.”[7]

In January 1954, Representative George Dondero of Michigan introduced a bill to prepare plans for a new museum as “…part of President Eisenhower’s plan for a stand-by program of public works to bolster the nation’s economy”.[8] Taylor, who would become the museum’s first director, promoted it as a “permanent exposition that commemorates our heritage of freedom and highlights the basic elements of our way of life.”[9] Such patriotic rhetoric was common in Cold War America. By mid-1955, Congress threw its support behind the museum, asserting a “need to protect our irreplaceable national treasures,” even going so far as to grant Eisenhower’s supplemental appropriations request.[10]

In what ways might have MHT’s Cold War foundations impacted its collections? From what I can tell, there might not have been any impact in the beginning. While the acquisition of the No. 1401 locomotive that pulled FDR’s funeral car from Warm Springs to DC was important, having a new museum would ease the Smithsonian’s space issues, allowing for the display of up to 800,000 objects in the institution’s collection.[11] When the museum opened, the objects on display—from the Star Spangled Banner and Jefferson’s desk, to lemon squeezers, locks, and dolls—were described as the nation’s “strange assortment of items in its attic storerooms over the passing generations”[12] In terms of social language, the objects seemed to communicate “our national character–or love of gadgetry, our skill at applied science, and our quest to make life both interesting and less arduous through invention.”[13] But is that the same as communicating America’s history? By 1980, the answer to that question was no.

It was in 1980 that Roger Kennedy, the museum’s sixth director, was faced with declining visitor numbers, no doubt due to the opening of the new National Museum of Air and Space and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art. As a result, he led a review of the museum’s “exhibition policy, its underlying philosophy, and methods of implementation” focused on “new clarity of purpose, greater unity and interrelation between the many isolated displays and collections.”[14] This search for new clarity led to changing the name of MHT to the National Museum of American History, placing technology in the service of history, not the other way around.[15]

 

Fast forward thirty-five years, and it would seem that this is still the case. I was not able to ascertain exactly if the process of collection has changed over time; as I write this reflection, it is clear that I should have attempted to obtain and review historical curators’ reports. However, what is clear is that NMAH continues to use its objects to place American technological innovation into historical context. For example, the Object Project exhibition “examines how the interplay of people, innovative things, and social change have shaped life as we know it.”[16]One day on a walkthrough of the exhibition, I participated in a demonstration of the evolution of ice and cold drinks. I was able to explore a variety of ice cube trays and discuss with fellow interns how the cold drinks we now enjoy (and given the extreme heat this past summer, also required) did not always exist. Our lives, made less arduous by invention.

 

 

 

[1] Susan M. Pearce, “Introduction.” In Interpreting Objects and Collections, edited by Susan M. Pearce (London: Routledge, 1994), 1.

[2] Pearce, 4.

[3] Gaynor Kavanagh, “”Objects as Evidence.” In History Curatorship. (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990), 109.

[4] Kavanagh, 107-108.

[5] Albert H. Small Documents Gallery, National Museum of American History, “Making a Modern Museum,” http://americanhistory.si.edu/documentsgallery/exhibitions/50th/7.html; Michael Kernan, “Light in the Attic: Remaking the Museum of American History,” The Washington Post, July 20 1982.

[6] “Making a Modern Museum”.

[7] “Smithsonian Bids For New Museum,” The New York Times, January 20, 1954.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Making a Modern Museum”.

[10] “Smithsonian Gets Praise—And Money,” The Washington Post and Times Herald, June 9, 1955; Paul Sampson, “President Asks $2,288,000 More for New Museum,” The Washington Post and Times Herald, June 30, 1955

[11] “$36 Million Museum Voted By Committee,” The Washington Post and Times Herald, May 21, 1955

[12] “Museum Is Shrine to Rise of U.S. as Nation,” The Washington Post and Times Herald, January 23, 2964.

[13] “Temple of Technology,” The Washington Post and Times Herald, January 24, 1964

[14] Michael Kernan, “Light in the Attic: Remaking the Museum of American History,” The Washington Post, July 20 1982.

[15] Ibid.

[16] National Museum of American History, “Introduction: Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project,” http://americanhistory.si.edu/object-project.

 

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