Means and ends

Yesterday I read Nash’s “For Whom Will the Bell Toll?” and was, naturally, cheering for the upstart historians and their supporters in the media and community. Hooray for rabble-rousing! Down with the problematic historical interpretations of big institutions!

This is, of course, the opposite reaction I had to Linenthal’s recounting of the Enola Gay controversy, in which upstart historians and their supporters in the media and community derailed the historical interpretation of a big institution.

The observation amused me, and serves as a valuable reminder. Process does matter; it is something to consider and critique. But it’s not the only factor that influences my reaction to controversy.

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Weekly readings: the public trust

Linenthal chronicles the trainwreck that was the Enola Gay exhibit. Lacking scripts (to say nothing of the physicality of the exhibit as variously planned and ultimately executed) it’s challenging to form an independent opinion about any of the drafts. Instead, we are left to form opinions about the players; and in this account the exhibit opponents made for an unpleasant concoction of right wingers, anti-intellectuals, hawks, racists, and liars, whereas the people working on the exhibit were…just the people working on the exhibit, not particularly heroic or flawless, caught flatfooted by an organized media campaign.

Rosenzweig and Thelen document Americans’ actual relationship with history and their efforts at historymaking. Survey respondents had a relatively high degree of trust in museum exhibits and a willingness to interact with the material…suggesting that people in general would’ve been perfectly capable of viewing a complex and challenging presentation of Enola Gay material without their heads exploding. Growing distrust of celebratory national narratives might have contributed to the popularity of such an exhibit (and compounded its danger to its critics), as might the use of intimate artifacts and the personalization of the Enola Gay’s crew.

Yellis charts another path: creating exhibits that may be unconventional or uncomfortable, but talk about the process of creation. The public might not always find the sausage-making appealing, and the knowledge might shake trust in museums as objective presenters of historical facts, but such an approach might spur useful conversation that Rosenzweig and Thelen suggest Americans crave.