Publication Date

September 1, 1997

Conservative journals and lawmakers tried to open a new front in the attack on history with a renewed charge that the Smithsonian Institution is "falling prisoner to politically correct interpretations of American history."

The latest round of controversy was prompted by a lengthy article in the May issue of The New Criterion, which maintains that “the staples of cutting edge ‘academic’ research-smirking irony, cultural relativism, celebration of putative victims, facile attacks on science-are all thriving in America’s premier museum and research complex.”

The article, "Revisionist Lust: The Smithsonian Today," by Heather MacDonald, offers wide-ranging criticism about warning labels on dioramas in the Museum of Natural History (which caution about racism, sexism, and anthropocentrism) i a "specific agenda … that is against whites"; exhibit themes and scripts dedicated to "the cynical debunking of core American beliefs"; and even the increased use of computers in exhibits.

Prompted by the article, Senator Spencer Abraham (R-MJ) sought support from fellow lawmakers to force Smithsonian Secretary 1. Michael Heyman to "detail the way in which he is re-establishing and maintaining standards of excellence … consistent with the long-standing principles of our nation." According to the Washington Times, by mid-June, Abraham had received support from eight other lawmakers.

Heyman responded with a two-page statement that dismissed the article, charging that "it is possible to find everything wrong and nothing right if you decide to use only examples that support your thesis and ignore overwhelming contrary evidence …. By focusing on no more that one-tenth of one percent of the exhibitions … [MacDonald] has created a mythical reality."

As of this writing, Heyman's response appeared to defuse the controversy, and no further action against the Smithsonian seemed imminent. Repeated calls to Abraham's office elicited no response.

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