Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Political Correctness at Smithsonian

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Political Correctness at Smithsonian

Article excerpt

THE LAST thing Margi Nanney expected on a hurried family tour through the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History was a lesson in political correctness.

But there, in bold letters on a sign next to an exhibit of African hartebeests, were these words:

"Female animals (currently in the museum) are being portrayed in ways that make them appear deviant or substandard to male animals," it said. Other mammal exhibits are flawed, the sign said, because they suggest humans are "more important" than other animals.

"This is not the kind of stuff that people come to a museum for," said Nanney, a 40-year-old advertising executive from Bradenton, Fla., who was accompanied by her husband, Pat, and two small sons. "We drove 100 miles just to see the dinosaurs, not to get a lesson in anything like this."

Amid a massive and expensive updating, officials of the second most popular museum in the United States are caught up in the same cultural disputes over race, gender, history, the environmental movement and man's basic nature that have been tearing up other institutions across the country.

For example, the country's most popular museum - the nearby Air and Space Museum - has political correctness problems of its own. Plans to display the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan have drawn flak because some feel the exhibit portrays the Japanese as victims without putting into proper context their aggression and their atrocities.

What's happening at the Natural History Museum is an effort to change the way Americans view themselves and the world around them, and not everyone likes it.

In the Great Mammals Hall, there is an otherwise benign exhibit of a lion family on the African plain. Father looks off into the horizon, apparently ready to begin the hunt, perhaps for a zebra, while the female is prone, surrounded by four playful cubs.

What's wrong with that?

"This scene gives the impression that the male lion goes out hunting while the female stays home with the kids," according to Robert Sullivan, associate director of public programs. "In fact, it is the female who usually does the hunting. There is no mention of that. Making people aware of that is just good science."

Then there are the passenger pigeons, driven into extinction because of the "avarice and thoughtlessness of man," according to an explanatory sign. Actually, said Sullivan, women were to blame, too.

An exhibit capturing a tiger in mid-leap should be revised because it creates the impression of an animal that is "only a predator" and not part of a greater community of other wildlife. Much better, he said, to create a diorama of life in the wild by asking what to do with man-eating tigers or demonstrating the workings of a tiger's claw.

Another exhibit portraying the arrival of Capt. John Smith greeted by the Powhatan Indians in Virginia in 1609 is a classic example of Eurocentrism, Sullivan said. …

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