PC Makeover Feared in Smithsonian's Military Update: History Museum Says Aging Exhibit Needs Broader View

By Scarborough, Rowan | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 25, 1996 | Go to article overview
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PC Makeover Feared in Smithsonian's Military Update: History Museum Says Aging Exhibit Needs Broader View


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


The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History plans to replace an armed forces exhibit with a more politically oriented show, sparking new complaints that the institution is bowing to political correctness.

The museum's confidential memos on the project are being leaked in copious numbers by suspicious employees, infuriating Smithsonian Institution officials, who say the planning remains in its infant stage.

Steven Lubar, the chairman of the museum's technology division, said he simply wants to update a tattered exhibit with a better one.

"If you look at the exhibit, it really is not very good," he said. "I find it hard to think people would want to stay with the same exhibit. It's 30 years old. It's very spotty. It doesn't tell important stories."

But veterans and history buffs view Mr. Lubar's memos otherwise. They say the taxpayer-funded museum, home to the flag that inspired the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," plans to de-emphasize the artifacts of war. They fear it will mix military history into exhibits on culture and politics.

In other words, they see all the buzzwords for a politically correct show that will portray the U.S. military more negatively.

"What they [the memos] show to me is a plan to eliminate military displays altogether because they don't like the military. I don't think they ever have," said Don Troiani, an expert on military memorabilia.

The "smoking gun," Mr. Troiani and others say, is a Lubar memo that describes the next military curator as more political scientist than military buff.

"I think that the focus of the new curatorship should be the relationship of the military with civilian culture, society and politics, especially in the 20th century," Mr. Lubar said in a Sept. 10 memo.

He played down the importance of hiring a person with museum experience or with "knowledge of the details of our too-traditionally defined collections of weapons, flags and uniforms."

"They never hire the authorities," Mr. Troiani said. "They hire academics instead of curators. They're not treating it like a museum. They're treating it like an Ivy League college."

The American Legion, which led the fight to force the Smithsonian to rewrite an exhibit on World War II, sent Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman a warning letter this month.

"We can safely say that if the `revisionists' attempt to revise these memories of the great wars, we will strongly oppose any attempt by a curator or any other individual or group to revise the accuracy of any military history displays at the Smithsonian Institution or elsewhere," said Joseph Frank, the American Legion's national commander.

Complaints about political correctness are not new to the Smithsonian. An exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum featuring the Enola Gay, the bomber that dropped the first of two atomic bombs on Japan, created a firestorm of protests, and Mr. Heyman scaled back the show.

At the history museum, curators were criticized for an exhibit that stressed chemistry's negative effects on society and ignored positive contributions.

Smithsonian officials bristle at the suggestion they plan to slight the military in any way.

"Flat out not true . . . that some PC, some special requirements have been put in place for personnel over there," Heyman spokesman David Umansky said.

Tensia Alvirez, the history museum's spokeswoman, said the leaked memo reflects tentative thinking for a project at least five years away.

"Nothing has been put in final form," she said. "The military history hall will remain. . . . This is, I would suggest, not thought-out criticism."

Mr. Lubar, escorting a visitor through the armed forces hall on the cavernous building's third floor, said his plan should not be controversial.

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