Title Reviewed:
A Living Exhibition: The Smithsonian and the Transformation of the Universal Museum

Author Reviewed:
William S. Walker

Kenneth Shefisek


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 110, Issue 2, pp 191-192

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

A Living Exhibition: The Smithsonian and the Transformation of the Universal Museum
By William S. Walker
(Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013. Pp. 291. Illustrations, notes, index. Paperbound, $27.95.)

In the late nineteenth century, the leaders of the Smithsonian Institution aimed to create a universal museum that could “reveal the deepest truths about nature and civilization” (p. 23), according to William S. Walker in A Living Exhibition: The Smithsonian and the Transformation of the Universal Museum. More recently, however, the Smithsonian has increasingly stressed more exclusive narratives, a position made evident through the 1989 authorization of the National Museum of the American Indian. This trajectory was not predetermined, Walker argues. Instead, the Smithsonian has been persistently challenged by its desire and need to “present [both] universal and particular narratives of human history and culture” (p. 229), impulses that guide the institution even today. As collections expand, and greater space is needed, discussions concerning where collections will be held and exhibited have consistently led to questions of institutional organization, raising both epistemological and museological issues. These debates are demonstrated by the Smithsonian’s varying approaches to the representation and exhibition of European/Euro-Americans as distinct from non-Europeans.

In the post-World-War-II period, Walker argues, politics, particularly the Cold War and the civil rights movements, impacted the Smithsonian’s leadership. These phenomena made the tension within the Smithsonian readily apparent, increasingly pulling it in divergent directions. Walker argues that while Cold War politics marginalized conflict in favor of a consensus-driven “therapeutic” vision of American history, the civil rights movements led members of historically oppressed groups to demand interpretive authority and administrative control of their history, a paradigm that many social historians supported. According to Walker, however, the Smithsonian’s choice to stress the particular was not unavoidable—between 1967 and the early 1980s, its administration explored an alternative proposal for a comprehensive “Museum of Man.” This vision was not achieved, however, because “the Smithsonian had become too fragmented to put all of its constituent parts together in one place. Institutional lines had been drawn, not only bureaucratically but in concrete and marble. Creating a space where everything, or nearly everything, might be drawn together in new configurations had become impossible” (p. 213).

Walker’s exploration of the Smithsonian’s Folklike Festival also demonstrates the tension between the exclusive and the comprehensive. From one perspective, the festival promoted “National Unity through Cultural Diversity” (p. 153), allowing visitors to interact with an array of cultural practitioners in an environment that suggested that diversity only strengthened America. Yet the festival also permitted “activist” folklorists to attempt to use “traditions to effect social, cultural, political and economic change” (p. 111), offering counter-narratives to a dominant view of American progress through capitalism. Organizers, however, could not necessarily control these counter-narratives, as the festival created sociocultural and physical space for some cultural practitioners to offer their own critiques, bringing a sense of conflict to the event.

Walker is correct that the Smithsonian’s compartmentalization contributed to the failure of the Museum of Man, but the cultural politics made apparent by the institution’s postwar expansion and the Folklife Festival suggest that in the context of an increasingly fragmented view of the American past, it was unlikely that the Smithsonian’s leaders could continue successfully to focus their narratives upon the universal. The Smithsonian’s spatial and organizational problems did bring attention to issues of authority and control, as Walker argues, yet scholarly and political trends undoubtedly were primary factors in the recent dominance of particularizing rather than universalizing visions. Nevertheless, Walker’s analysis contributes ably to the literature on the intersection of consensus and conflict and of the official and the vernacular, demonstrating how cultural pluralism and diversity have been and still are negotiated in real space in American life.

KENNETH SHEFSIEK is an early Americanist and Assistant Professor of Public History at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He is currently completing a book manuscript, Set in Stone: Constructing and Commemorating a Hudson Valley Culture.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.