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Who Owns America's Past?

, 400 pages

49 halftones

January 2017



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Who Owns America's Past?

The Smithsonian and the Problem of History

Honorable mention, National Council on Public History Book Award

Outstanding Academic Title, Choice


In 1994, when the National Air and Space Museum announced plans to display the Enola Gay, the B-29 sent to destroy Hiroshima with an atomic bomb, the ensuing political uproar caught the museum's parent Smithsonian Institution entirely unprepared. As the largest such complex in the world, the Smithsonian cares for millions of objects and has displayed everything from George Washington's sword to moon rocks to Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Why did this particular object arouse such controversy? From an insider’s perspective, Robert C. Post’s Who Owns America’s Past? offers insight into the politics of display and the interpretation of history.

Never before has a book about the Smithsonian detailed the recent and dramatic shift from collection-driven shows, with artifacts meant to speak for themselves, to concept-driven exhibitions, in which objects aim to tell a story, displayed like illustrations in a book. Even more recently, the trend is to show artifacts along with props, sound effects, and interactive elements in order to create an immersive environment. Rather than looking at history, visitors are invited to experience it.

Who Owns America’s Past? examines the different ways that the Smithsonian’s exhibitions have been conceived and designed—whether to educate visitors, celebrate an important historical moment, or satisfy donor demands or partisan agendas. Combining information from hitherto-untapped archival sources, extensive interviews, a thorough review of the secondary literature, and considerable personal experience, Post gives the reader a behind-the-scenes view of disputes among curators, academics, and stakeholders that were sometimes private and at other times burst into headline news.

Robert C. Post, now curator emeritus, was employed by the Smithsonian for twenty-three years, beginning in 1973. He was responsible for several technological collections and story-driven exhibits. The author of Urban Mass Transit: The Life Story of a Technology and High Performance: The Culture and Technology of Drag Racing, 1950–2000, he has been the recipient of the Society for the History of Technology's Leonardo da Vinci Medal. He also edited the quarterly journal Technology and Culture.

"Post's thoughtful elucidation of the exhibits and the ensuing controversies demonstrate the complexities of the environment in the national museum in the twentieth century. Further, this work documents the shifting priorities of the Smithsonian, revealing the many different actors that took part in the creation of both well-known exhibits and many smaller ones. The book also provides many interesting and important examples of the interconnections between historians of technology and the Smithsonian. This excellent work will be valuable to public historians as well as laypersons."

"A pick for any collection strong in museum management and history. The result goes beyond a recommendation for arts holdings, examining how American history itself is documented and presented."

"A detailed insider's look at growth and change across the institution. The book offers a rich and readable intellectual biography of the Smithsonian."

"The Smithsonian finally gets its Washington insider-tells-all memoir. Who Owns America's Past? documents the value of the Smithsonian's distinctive culture—and also the way it has kept the institution from being all that it might be."

"Weaves original primary source research, scholarly synthesis, and personal experiences into a highly readable study of the cultural history of America's most popular museum institution."

"Here is an eyewitness account of many of the personalities, controversies, artifacts, and interpretations that most of us know in their final, burnished form, upon the walls of the world's greatest history museum. Who Owns America's Past? is a needed book."

"This is an important book that examines the inner workings of the Smithsonian in ways that are both interesting and useful. There are no easy answers to the questions Post raises with this insightful text."

"For readers curious about the upper stories and basement spaces beyond the exhibits, it provides access to decision makers and the collections they oversaw because the author regularly walked those spaces and conversed with their denizens... This book did not promise comprehensiveness or even an answer to the general question of 'who' or even 'what' defines history, but Post's account does provide a reminder that it is important to seek out the answer to that question in specific places because—particularly at one of the nation's most visible and influential institutions—it matters."

"This is a most readable account written by an insider of a fascinating institution."

"Robert Post’s study of the evolution of America’s premier museum is authoritative, thorough, and engagingly written by a curatorial insider with a critical perspective. His judgment of Smithsonian controversies during the past generation is reliable and well informed, especially those concerning the history of technology. This is institutional history in the very best sense because it highlights the role of individuals as well as ideas. We also gain insight into the museum’s place in national politics. A most enlightening project."

"The great lacuna in historiographical accounts of the modern period is any overview of the role of the modern national museum in shaping both popular and scholarly historical presentations. While there is a modest literature in the museum studies world and a handful of dissertations, there is nothing of the scale and scope of this remarkable book. Part history, part memoir, part polemic, it is insightful, fascinating and sure to be an influential book about the history of technology and the Smithsonian Institution’s role in shaping our understanding of modern American history."

"Post admirably provokes discussion about how an official national repository goes about presenting and interpreting its historical artifacts—a great pleasure to read."

"Robert Post’s extraordinary account of the Smithsonian Institution’s treatment of history raises profound and disturbing questions about how curators, museum directors, the Smithsonian Secretary, stakeholders, and donors have shaped historical presentation. Readers will delight in Post’s sometimes humorous characterization of staff, enjoy learning how the institution has changed over the years, and benefit from this careful examination of history, technology, and culture."

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