Political Correctness Comes out of the Attic at the Smithsonian

By Goode, Stephen | Insight on the News, January 2, 1995 | Go to article overview
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Political Correctness Comes out of the Attic at the Smithsonian


Goode, Stephen, Insight on the News


Political correctness, that panoply of left-wing causes and attitudes, has permeated college campuses for a decade. It also has invaded museums and other cultural bastions, including the custodian of the nation's past, the Smithsonian Institution.

PC is far from pervasive at the 16-museum complex, where 28 million visitors come each year to view American icons such as Charles Lindbergh's monoplane, "The Spirit of St. Louis," and the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner." Nevertheless, a string of exhibitions has gained the attention of Matthew Hoffman, a policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and others who have labeled them, in Hoffman's words, "a disgrace, a waste of museum space, a waste of taxpayers' money." Consider:

* In the mammals section at the National Museum of Natural History, "What's Wrong" signs list "misconceptions we plan to eliminate in our new exhibitions." Other "warnings" explain to visitors that "female animals are portrayed in ways that make them appear deviant or substandard" and that "humans are treated as more important than other mammals."

* At the National Museum of American History, an exhibit titled "New Mexico" lauds the "communal values" of American Indians and Hispanics, while noting that "the tradition of sharing resources all but vanished" when "Anglos" invaded the territory in the 19th century. The show portrays New Mexico as a multicultural success and example for all of America but deplores the "continued animosity" of different ethnic and racial groups, due primarily to "Anglo" intransigence.

* At the National Air and Space Museum, the "Where Next, Columbus?" exhibit deplores 500 years of Western exploitation, then warns that space may be in for a similar fate. The same museum has a show called "Legend, Memory, and the Great War" that disparages World War I flying aces by claiming their exploits were glorified to spur on the war effort at home.

Visitors have complained about the exhibits (one high-ranking director reportedly has received a death threat) and some have written letters to the museums. Others have expressed their outrage by scratching out words on the plaques or defacing them with graffiti reading "FemiNazi," a derogatory term for radical feminists. But Smithsonian officials dismiss the letters as "hate mail" and, in at least one case, a politically correct exhibit on the interment of Japanese Americans during World War II was enlarged after a public protest.

Blatantly political exhibitions were absent at the Smithsonian before Robert McCormick Adams was appointed secretary in 1984. Described by the Washington Post as an "establishment radical," Adams declared that the purpose of the institution under his tenure would be "confrontation, experimentation and debate"--and he lived up to his word, mounting shows in the early 1990s on environmentalism, the women's movement, racial oppression and AIDS.

The most PC of all Smithsonian exhibitions, "Etiquette of the Underclass," took place under Adams' stewardship. The show presented visitors with a kind of day-in-the-life of the average homeless person, complete with a sound track that simulated a prostitute having sex while a woman's voice intoned, "Who is smarter; the girl who gets paid for it or the one who gives it away?"

Ominously, the Smithsonian's new secretary, I. Michael Heyman, sounded like his predecessor when he defined what he regards as the museum's duty. The purpose of the Smithsonian, he said, should not be "celebration" or "adulation" of the past, but to teach.

The vague word teach may be the source of all the trouble and controversy. At the National Museum of American History, "Science in American Life" purports to describe how science has changed the United States but is really a "look at what's wrong and evil with science," according to Robert Park, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland and public-information director for the American Physical Society.

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Political Correctness Comes out of the Attic at the Smithsonian
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