Clothing Makers Cite Bias in Exhibit: Urge Smithsonian to Balance Message

By Scarborough, Rowan | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 22, 1997 | Go to article overview

Clothing Makers Cite Bias in Exhibit: Urge Smithsonian to Balance Message


Scarborough, Rowan, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The Smithsonian Institution has managed to offend the Boy Scouts, war veterans and scientists in recent years. Now, the fashion industry is saying

the Smithsonian can't pull the wool over its eyes

in planning a new exhibit that makes apparel manufacturers and wretched sweatshops seem as one.

The clothing industry's major associations are protesting the labor-financed production "Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Dialogue on American Sweatshops, 1820-Present," due to open April 15 at the National Museum of American History.

They contend the show spotlights the notorious El Monte, Calif., sweatshop raided by authorities in 1995, while failing to balance the sorry picture with the overwhelmingly positive contributions clothiers make to society.

At El Monte, more than 70 illegal immigrants from Thailand were living behind barbed-wire fences and working on apparel up to 22 hours a day.

"It's not a scholarly perspective," said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Industry. "The agenda is not history but political proselytizing. And we object to the use of government funding to attack an entire history under the guise of scholarship."

But Peter Liebhold, one of two project curators, said "Rock and a Hard Place" is not about apparel manufacturers but about the evolution of sweatshops.

"The whole history of sweatshops is very complex," he said. "There's no single story of good and evil. There are no superheroes and no superdemons."

He added: "We've had a lot of support from some people and concern from others. Nobody judges whether dinner is good or not until it is cooked. We would prefer to have our exhibit critiqued only when it's open and not only when it's being prepared."

Mr. Liebhold acknowledged he added a new section on the industry's "good practices" only after a representative said the show was too negative.

"We realized he was right," the curator said. "It was very important that people leave the exhibit not depressed about the apparel industry. I do business history, and I like business. I wanted people to know there were good things going on."

Nonetheless, the industry's two largest associations, the American Apparel Manufacturers Association and the National Retailers Federation, have withdrawn from participation.

"If we couldn't get our side in to show some balance, we felt there was nothing to be gained by participating in it," said Jack Morgan, spokesman for the apparel association.

This is not the first time the taxpayer-financed Smithsonian has been charged with presenting an unbalanced, negative view of American life in politically tinged exhibits. …

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