Book Review: Who Owns America’s Past?
Robert C. Post, Who Own’s America’s Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.
Bob Post’s new book is a hybrid account—it covers both the history of cultural history at the Smithsonian and Post’s own career as a curator. He traces the usual story of how Joseph Henry didn’t want to start a museum and so on, but the book really shines in its telling of the genesis of the Museum of History and Technology and its transformation into the National Museum of American History (and the National Air and Space Museum.) I loved the deep dives into exhibit practice and the stories of particular exhibits and their context within the changing currents of the historical profession and those of SI’s internal politics. (Speaking of internal politics, one affective response I had to the book was an appreciation of how difficult—impossible!—it is to work under the political pressures of a national museum.) Post devotes an entire chapter to the Enola Gay incident, but he also gives time to a host of other exhibits in all areas of the museum over the past 50 years—Field to Factory and America on the Move, certainly, but also smaller exhibits on banking, printing, and clockwork, with an emphasis on the consequences of the shift from collections-based to experience-based exhibits and on the outsized role of donors. He also traces the way our fledgling discipline of the history of technology was nurtured by and in turn helped shape a new national museum that put technology in the spotlight (also see this T & C article).
Read the footnotes—that’s where Post puts his most trenchant observations of SI personalities and his notes on such important topics as diversity in curatorial hiring. This book is for the general reader, but those embedded in history museum practice will appreciate the insider perspective and the opportunity to hear about our distinguished colleagues when they were brash young curators.