Historians and the Public(s)
Good History Is Not Enough
In the summer of 1996 a small group of curators gathered in an office of the National Museum of American History (NMAH), Smithsonian Institution, to learn the latest news concerning the upcoming 19th-century exhibition. After months of debate the Smithsonian's central administration had finally decided that it would allow only a portion of the exhibition to be built. The institution's management stipulated that the exhibition's case studies focusing on industrialization, immigration, and slavery could be produced, but that sections on Cherokee removal and western expansion would be placed on hold.1 The explanation the curators of the show received was that these sections contained "too much white male bashing."
After eight years of work on this major project, we were livid. We asked ourselves how these administrators could dismiss our efforts in such an offhanded manner. We had grounded the text in current research. The draft of the exhibition script had received praise from respected scholars in the field. What more could they ask of us? The meeting broke up with each of us muttering about how it had become impossible to produce worthwhile exhibitions in the current political climate.
Ten or fifteen years ago it seemed so simple to combine a thriving museum exhibition program with a commitment to challenge visitors' views on American history and the world around them. Across the country museums mounted shows that examined race relations, urban decay, and environmental problems. Stories that had never been told became the mainstay of exhibition schedules. Historic plantations began to present the history of slavery and industrial museums started to include workers and unions. For a time the NMAH received more requests for loans of KKK robes to go into shows on racism than we did for George Washington relics.
With the so-called Culture Wars of the 1990s, not only were the well-publicized Enola Gay exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum and the Sigmund Freud exhibition at the Library of Congress called into question, but countless others were quietly canceled. These attacks from both the political right and left directly challenged the right of museums to participate in the social and political debates of the day. For museum curators and administrators it seemed that all attempts at social history resulted in accusations of promoting a hidden political agenda. The exhibition schedules that appeared so promising to many in the museum profession suddenly were in jeopardy. It became clear that museum curators had lost the confidence of not only some members of the public, but also of museum administrators, board members, and public and private funders.
Many critics claimed that it was not that the topics were taboo, but rather, that the fault was in the way museums presented them. The critics claimed there was an arrogance in the tone and approach of the shows—that in effect, public institutions had wrongfully used their position to promote social and political stands. Instead of encouraging dialogue, museums had closed out different perspectives and different groups.
Rather than believing that public institutions no longer had a role in discussing relevant issues, some of us wondered what would happen if we took our detractors at their word and also took their complaints seriously. With this in mind, Peter Liebhold and I decided to craft an exhibition with a format to meet these criticisms, without surrendering the museum to irrelevance. With the encouragement of Spencer Crew, the director of NMAH, and Lonnie Bunch, associate director of curatorial affairs, Peter and I revived a portion of a proposal on a show on low-paid work and began to organize an exhibition on the history of garment sweatshops in America. Throughout the process we discovered strong support in this effort not only within NMAH but also among some of the same administrators who had criticized the 19th-century show. The principal goal was to take the complex issue of sweatshops—which was receiving considerable attention in the media—and provide a historical context. We hoped that the exhibition would help visitors better understand the current debate and provide information that would help them make informed decisions.
We proceeded according to several operating principles. First and foremost, we realized that if we were to succeed we needed to establish widespread support both inside and outside the institution. The recent history of similar public history endeavors was clear. For large, visible projects, good work by itself was not enough to sustain a project under assault from influential interest groups who often simply did not want the topic discussed. From the outset we sought the support of museum administrators, reporters, politicians, government officials, and labor, business, and community leaders. By the time the California Fashion Association threatened "to turn this exhibit plan into another Enola Gay," the exhibition had developed a strong network of defenders who had already voiced their backing for the project.2
Balance became the watchword: balance in content, balance in participation, balance in funding. There was never a time that we did not have to demonstrate and defend the exhibition on this point. It was clear to us that this would be the measure of whether the show would be permitted to open. Our challenge was to create this balance and still have a show that would have something to say.3
Trying to find ways to overcome the criticism that many current exhibitions presented only limited viewpoints was an important goal of the project. We attempted to solve this in two ways—by actively seeking out the involvement of groups with different perspectives and by structuring the design of the show to accommodate multiple opinions and voices. About 50 percent of the time spent in doing the sweatshop exhibition was devoted to developing and maintaining relationships with members of the garment industry, labor, government, and the community. While the exhibition was greatly strengthened by this contact, I doubt that it would have opened without a track record of working with a wide variety of those involved in the issue.
We put together a long list of consultants and advisers in order to obtain the widest possible input in understanding the apparel industry and how this subject should be presented to the public. These groups included historians, sociologists, economists, curators, manufacturers, retailers, government officials, union organizers, community activists, and garment workers. The difference between consultants and advisers was important. Consultants were largely academics who we asked to review drafts of the script. Advisers were mostly individuals involved in the industry or working on the sweatshop issue that we asked for help in obtaining information and insights. A lesson learned from the Enola Gay exhibition and other projects is that a distance must be maintained between those who have a vested interest in the interpretation of the exhibition, especially if you want to include such antagonistic groups that we were hoping to make part of this show. In the exhibition design we approached this problem from several directions. Most notably, we experimented with combining a historical overview with current statements from individuals representing different interests and visitors' comments.
As we worked through this project it became clear that we needed to be careful with the overall tone of the presentation. Exhibitions too often make broad generalizations, which visitors are asked to accept on faith. If museums are going to challenge visitors' preconceived notions of history, then curators need to explain how they are substantiating their position. Accompanying publications provide only part of the answer. While traditional footnotes are too cumbersome for most exhibitions, when we presented uncomfortable or disputed information we included primary source material, including contemporary quotes and documents, or gave references.
Finally, we believed that the exhibition needed to be interactive. By this I do not mean audiovisuals that let visitors push buttons and play computer games. Rather, we aimed for the exhibition to encourage the public to intellectually interact with the overall presentation and to add to it. In the majority of exhibitions the relationship is one-way: the museum acts as the authority and the visitor is the receiver of information. Although this is not necessarily bad, we decided that it was important to encourage visitors to construct their own conclusions and interpretations rather than lecture to them.
The exhibition, Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of Sweatshops in America, 1820–Present, was open at NMAH from April to December 1998 and at the Museum of Tolerance, Los Angeles, from November 1999 to April 2000. The exhibition consisted of six sections. There was an introduction that included a statement by Crew and Bunch on why museums do this kind of exhibition and a history section (which took about half the floor space) presented the complexity of the issue and how trends in manufacturing, retail, immigration, and reform efforts affected sweatshop production at a particular time. The next section focused on the El Monte sweatshop that authorities raided in 1995. This shop drew national attention when officials discovered 72 Thai workers who were being held in debt peonage and forced to sew. Because of the controversial nature of this section, especially for the California garment industry, we decided not to rely solely on the curatorial voice. Instead, we included a video that told the story of the El Monte sweatshop only in the words of the workers and law enforcement officers who worked the case. Following this area were two small sections, one on how American sweatshops fit into global industry and a video presentation on good industry practices. The video emphasized that there are companies that make affordable clothing without resorting to sweatshops. Finally, the exhibit concluded with a large dialogue section. We asked six individuals to contribute statements and artifacts that addressed the issue of sweatshops: Maria Echaveste, assistant to President Clinton and former director of wage and hours, Department of Labor; Jay Mazur, president, Union of Needletrades and Textile Employees; Robert Haas, CEO, Levi Strauss; Kathie Lee Gifford, in her role as celebrity endorser of a line of clothing; Julie Su, attorney at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center; and Floyd Hall, CEO, K-mart. Visitors were encouraged to join in the discussion by writing their comments in notebooks that were kept in the exhibition gallery for others to read. Also in this area were notebooks that included newspaper articles discussing the controversy over the exhibition and letters supporting and denouncing the mounting of the show.
This brief overview is in no way intended to hold up this exhibition as a model to follow; rather, there are certain lessons to be learned. Museums can no longer plan to do challenging exhibitions in isolation. Increasingly they must deal with interest groups that have their own agendas and concerns. Public history has to involve more of the public both in the process and in the presentation. This requires listening and working closely with those who have a stake in the subject and carefully shaping the tone and substance of the presentation.
At the heart of all exhibitions is the requirement for thorough and honest scholarship. Most agree, however, that these are still difficult times in which to present public history. Institutions can be vulnerable if they do not lay the proper groundwork and are not well prepared to address critics. Museums rely on public trust and they risk losing this trust if they approach controversial topics without thoughtful planning. Yet they should never forget that they also risk this trust if they do too little and retreat from being relevant and valuable institutions for their communities.
—Harry R. Rubenstein is a curator in the Division of Social History at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. He has worked on several exhibitions, including Communities in a Changing Nation: American Life in the 19th-Century; Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops, 1820–Present; and Badges of Pride: Symbols and Images of American Labor.
1. Communities in a Changing Nation: The Promise of 19th-Century America opened with three of its case studies in February 1999. The two remaining sections await funding and script approval.
2. Los Angeles Times, 11 September 1997, A1, A19. Responding to the California Fashion Association's call for the cancellation of the show, 48 members of Congress sent a letter to the secretary of the Smithsonian urging him to proceed with the exhibition.
3. The goal of balance, while favored by administrators, was not something everyone involved in the sweatshop issue appreciated. We received many complaints from business groups over the inclusion of material from community activists, and objections from activists for including statements and material from business leaders.
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.