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The decline of the American museum

In 1999, WORLD took a tour of the nation’s worldview warehouses

The Smithsonian Institution on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

The decline of the American museum

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the July 17, 1999, issue of WORLD Magazine and is republished here as part of our Saturday Series. For more on the state of America’s museums, see Marvin Olasky’s cover story from the current issue of WORLD: “A tale of two museums.”

With more than 850 million visits per year, going to museums constitutes one of Americans’ biggest summertime activities. From the monumental columned treasure houses of America’s major cities to the dusty display cases of roadside attractions, from traveling exhibits of works of art from the other side of the world to our nation’s shrines to baseball, fishing, or country music, museums are storehouses of cultural values.

Museums used to be mainly collections of interesting or significant objects. People have always experienced a sense of awe at seeing a relic from some significant event or that once belonged to some significant person. At the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., one can see the actual airplane the Wright Brothers invented in 1903. And then, in the same room, stand next to the actual Mercury space capsule, scorch marks and all, that carried one of the first men into outer space. You can even get up close to actual rocks brought back from the moon. Great museums evoke a sense of wonder as great achievements and earth-shaking events are no longer remote and abstract, but brought down to earth, manifested concretely, in something real. The thrill of a museum comes from an encounter with objective truth.

More and more, the academic establishment discounts objective truth, and this is showing up in museums. Although it’s still possible to find intriguing objects in museums, the display case has often been replaced with video clips, interactive simulators, and virtual environments. Many of today’s exhibits bear a close resemblance to theme parks. Instead of simply exhibiting tribal artifacts, a contemporary museum will attempt to immerse visitors in the tribal experience, having them walk through a fake jungle to a recreated tribal village. And while it is still possible to view a fossilized dinosaur egg in a museum, most of the attention will tend to shift to the life-sized animatronic models of dinosaurs, with Jurassic Park motion and slavering jaws that open and close.

The educational mission of museums has shifted, along with educational theory, away from conveying objective facts. Instead, in museums as in American schools, education means providing an experience.

The Smithsonian still contains real things, like the Hope Diamond and the world’s largest (stuffed) elephant. But today it is collecting artifacts from the pop culture, such as Archie Bunker’s chair and Star Trek props, souvenirs of media illusions. This helps further to blur the boundary between the real and the fictional.

The view that truth is not really objective but is a construction of various personal and social biases has changed academic disciplines, and it has changed museums. History once consisted of the record of important events, epoch-making ideas, and significant accomplishments of individuals. Now, historians, following the influence of neo-Marxist collectivists, focus on broad social patterns and the mundane lives of the “common people.” Thus, David Brooks complains in The Weekly Standard (June 7, 1999) that the National Museum of American History in Washington contains practically nothing about the major events and personages and issues of American history. Museum visitors will find practically nothing about Columbus, the Puritans, the founding fathers, the ideals of the Constitution, or why the Revolution, the War Between the States, or the World Wars were fought.

“Whatever subject is being addressed,” he observes, “you will see a lot of dishes and farm implements. The small World War II section shows what a barracks looked like, with authentic foot lockers, shovels, and plates.” But nothing on why the men fought. “If the curators of the Smithsonian’s American history museum were asked to do an exhibit on the book of Exodus,” says Brooks, “they would devote room after room to Israelite walking sticks and totally ignore the Ten Commandments.”

The academic dogma of multiculturalism is also on display in today’s museums. As Brooks puts it, the National Museum of American History “is a museum of multicultural grievance, which simply passes over any subject, individual, or idea, no matter how vital to American history, that does not have to do with the oppression of some ethnic outgroup or disfavored gender.” Thus, six times more space is devoted to the internment of Japanese Americans than to the rest of World War II. The one exhibit on World War I is about the role of women in the war. Treatment of America’s ethnic communities abounds (especially when they have been treated badly). But there is hardly anything that illuminates America as a whole.

America’s museums are still great storehouses of the nation’s treasures. Many of the collections from the past are still to be found, but they have been recaptioned. The National Museum of American History, for example, has a longstanding and popular collection of inaugural gowns worn by the first ladies. But instead of a survey of fashions through the years, the exhibit is framed in feminist terms, discussing the role of presidents’ wives and lauding the “subtle feminism” of Mrs. Coolidge and Mrs. Hoover. In natural history museums, the stuffed animals and exotic dioramas are overlaid with messages of environmentalism.

Today, even museums reflect the worldviews and prejudices that are in the air. WORLD here offers profiles of five museums or exhibits, ranging from the sciences to the arts, from the stolid to the bizarre. Museums are worth attending, but a guide is always useful. —Gene Edward Veith

The Field Museum, Chicago

Admitting its mistakes

‘Natural history’ museum tells the truth about human sacrifice and tones down the Darwinism

The Field Museum is a classic institution devoted to “natural history” (an intrinsically Darwinian term, meaning that the museum will have lots of dinosaurs and stuffed animals) and anthropology (which used to refer to “primitive cultures” and now refers to cultural relativism).

The “Living Together” exhibit allows the viewer, in the words of the brochure, to “explore a framework for understanding cultural diversity.” Here, the old anthropological holdings (mannequins in tribal costumes and decorative artifacts) are juxtaposed with their equivalents in modern-day Chicago. A headhunter’s shirt is portrayed next to a uniform of a Green Beret. A Hopi cliff dwelling is displayed with a high-rise apartment. A Shriner’s fez is next to a chief’s feathered headdress.

The implication, of course, is that there is no difference between “primitive” cultures and our own. And yet somehow, our own comes out as inferior. In a showcase on standards of beauty, pierced noses, stretched out necks and lips, and tribal body markings are put on a par with images from American fashion magazines, along with an unexplained dig: “In the United States today, the standards for masculine and feminine beauty reveal the social inequality that exists between the sexes.” Nothing is said about the social inequality between the sexes in the tribal cultures, or in which society women have it better.

But the Field Museum is at least willing to extend this spirit of cultural self-criticism to itself. One of their old dioramas depicted a Pawnee human sacrifice, showing, with little models, the Indian tribe sacrificing a young woman to their gods. But now accompanying the tableau is a sign about how, in 1986, a visitor complained that the model is racist and sexist, since it portrays a marginalized culture in an unfavorable light and depicts violence against women. In response, the museum polled its viewers and consulted with representatives of the Pawnee tribe. The public voted 10-1 to keep the diorama, as did the Pawnee, who said that while they do not now condone this ancient custom, this is exactly what they used to do.

Nevertheless, the curators changed the exhibit, adding a statement about how well the maiden was treated before she was killed and about how being sacrificed to the god was such a great honor. Women were added to the scene, so it did not look like men victimized the maiden. The leering faces on the part of some of the models were changed, and the victim was made younger and less “voluptuous,” toning down any sexual implications. The placards now accompanying the exhibit thank the critic for helping them make the display more accurate. What is more striking—and commendable—is a toning down of evolutionism. Although visitors can walk through a timeline depicting 3.8 billion years of evolution, narrated by a cheesy series of video “newscasts,” and although the exhibit underscores that “humans evolved by the same process as any other plant or animal,” there is a significant concession to creationists.

The Field Museum is the source of that oft-reprinted exhibit purportedly showing the evolution of the horse. Little skeletons are followed by slightly larger and ever more equine skeletons, smoothly mutating until we have the modern-day horse. On the face of it, this seems to provide a vivid visual proof of evolution, with no missing links from the tiny ferret-like creature to the magnificent stallion, and it has been used as such in countless science textbooks. It turns out, though, that the animals whose skeletons are so arranged have nothing to do with each other. They represent different species, different branches, and overlapping times, as even evolutionists—called on the matter by critics of Darwinism—have been forced to admit. The Field Museum, to its credit, has pulled the showcase, substituting a photo of the old exhibit, along with an account of the controversy. “Once we told the story wrong,” it confesses, making “the complex seem simple.”

Possibly the most interesting “real thing” displayed at the Field Museum, as attested to by the crowds of young people ooh-ing and ahh-ing, is in the stuffed animal dioramas. Here, the grizzlies and rhinos, mounted in the old days to their scariest, snarling advantage to the background of painted murals, are muted somewhat by earnest informational kiosks about endangered species and saving the rainforests.

But here is to be found the actual stuffed carcasses of the notorious Lions of Tsovo, made even more notorious by the recent movie The Ghosts and the Darkness. These two lions ate 140 railway workers over a period of nine months, until a big-game hunter tracked them down. The lions, for all of the eating, appear remarkably scrawny, suggesting that human beings may not contain much nutritional value. A caption insisted earnestly that “lions rarely eat people,” but it was still thrilling to see them. —G.E.V.

The Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

Intellectual playhouse

Amid the self-esteem and AIDS displays, a prenatal development exhibit unintentionally makes a pro-life case

Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry was founded in 1893 as part of the Columbian Exhibition, that great world’s fair celebrating the industrial revolution and the progress of the century to come. Today, it still retains something of that naive optimism.

Science is lifted up as a children’s game, as hands-on exhibits allow kids to have fun with wave theory and fluid dynamics. The amount of scientific knowledge they have gained from all of this experiential learning is, of course, negligible.

The Industry part is represented by a plethora of corporate sponsors. The museum contains even a National Business Hall of Fame, sponsored by Junior Achievement, which attempts to teach economic lessons such as “supply and demand,” complete with rags-to-riches stories. Plenty of “cool stuff”—a real German U-boat visitors can go inside and a simulation of a coal mine—assures everyone a good time.

But even here, as in the corporate world, other values are at work. It is not clear whether pop psychology is presented as a science or an industry in “Kid’s Starway: A Path to Self-Discovery.” “Become a Total Person in Kid’s Starway,” urge the signs. “Discover that each person is special in the Self-Esteem House. Express yourself in the Forest of Feelings. Make the right choices when you Walk a Straight Line.”

This consists of a path through different rooms featuring didactic videos and scenarios to which children are asked to react: “How do you feel when you don’t get picked for the team?” Preferred answer: “I’ll have other chances.” Or, “You came in second in the 50-yard dash. How do you feel?” Answers: “I feel great being part of the race.” “Running fast makes me feel good.” There are no unhappy answers.

Finally, the path leads to “making decisions about drugs and alcohol.” The child puts on vision-distorting glasses, while trying to walk a straight line, depicting supposedly how bad substances make you stagger and walk funny. The one negative image in the whole course of self-esteem didacticism comes at the end: a car wreck, showing what happens when you drink and drive, a bit of ugly reality to conclude a touchy-feely marathon that few children will believe for an instant.

But it gets darker: The obligatory AIDS exhibit uses bright-colored cartoons and kids-appealing graphics. Blue antibodies that look like soccer balls show how the immune system works. There is a wall of condoms—open up a display and see how condoms are tested. A presentation on prevention lists abstinence as the best way, followed by an exclusive long-term relationship, followed by the use of condoms. But, while the exhibit mentions sex, it does not mention homosexuality. AIDS is presented as just another virus, like catching a cold, and nobody has any values imposed on them.

The most unsettling exhibit in this vast and cheerful scientific playground is Prenatal Development. Here, the growth of a baby is shown through a succession of actual human embryos in formaldehyde. “To the best of our knowledge,” a plaque assures us, “their survival was prevented by natural causes or accidents.” Well, maybe so, though the abortion industry could offer a limitless supply. But human bodies deserve decent burial, not display in a museum.

Nevertheless, the smooth progression from a barely visible dot, through something still tiny but—as the captions point out—fully identifiable with a spinal cord and functioning brain, into an obvious baby, growing bigger and bigger, packs a pro-life wallop. It is hard to imagine how anyone could see this exhibit and not recognize that “embryos” are really babies, fully human in every way, and mourn the way “their survival was prevented” by the legality and the social acceptance of abortion. And the point is accentuated by all of the postpartum children all around having such a good time at the museum. —G.E.V.

Museum of Death, San Diego

Culture of the damned

Macabre memorabilia ‘gorifies’ death

(Editor’s note: The Museum of Death has since moved to Hollywood, Calif., and opened a branch in New Orleans.)

If hell is downward, the Museum of Death is on the way there. A narrow stairway leads visitors down from the Orleanesque streets of San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter into this loathsome attraction. Opened in 1995 and housed, appropriately, in a former mortuary, the Museum of Death is home to perhaps the most macabre collection of memorabilia in the country.

“There’s a video playing in the back,” proprietor J.D. Healy tells me as I descend the stairs. He jerks his head toward an unseen room at the end of a photo-lined hallway. “Watch it as long as you can stand it.” Not sure that I want to, I head down that hall past photos—at least a hundred of them—depicting the gory aftermath of traffic accidents. Dismemberment, entrails, decapitation: If it’s gross, it’s there.

The video turns out to be a six-hour continuous loop of death caught live on tape. Third-world military beheadings, industrial accidents, a man shooting himself in the head in front of two dozen of his closest friends. Several museum visitors watch raptly. (One later tells me he found the video “educational.”)

In another room, tools of the executioner’s trade are on display—a guillotine, an electric chair, accoutrements of a gas chamber. In another room, one wall features grisly crime-scene photos of the Manson murders; another uses time-lapse stills to chronicle a woman and her lover dismembering the woman’s husband.

The largest room in the museum is devoted to serial killers. Letters, drawings, and psychological profiles of mass murderers are tacked on the walls and tucked into display cases. Prominently featured: serial murderers Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, and David Berkowitz. For visitors who might find such an item whimsical, there is even a serial-killer board game. The big question is, of course, why? Healy says he and partner Cathee Schultz are “just trying to give people what they want.” It’s for educational purposes, he says, not shock value (yeah … right). —Lynn Vincent

The Suida-Manning Collection, at the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, Texas

Baroque and bewildered

Everything here is a religious experience

Deep in the heart of the funkiest part of Austin, Texas—within a block of no less than three tattoo parlors, two vegetarian food stores, and seven booksellers—one of the nation’s largest collections of baroque art has gone on display.

Blanton Museum of Art director Jessie Otto Hite expressed something between irony and understatement when he told a San Antonio newspaper last month: “This collection has caused a major shift in how seriously this museum is being considered. Seeing these Old Masters is almost a religious experience.” Everything, of course, is a “religious experience,” because God is the God of the universe, and nothing is unconnected to Him.

Artists in the Baroque era (roughly the 17th century) understood this: The works of Rubens, Vignon, and Bernini are infused with a reverence for God and His creation. Their themes were mostly, though not exclusively, religious. (The Suida-Manning collection includes works on classical subjects, and even some early landscapes.)

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) embodied the combination best in his rich, heavy-fleshed subjects, whether they were saints, sinners, or angels. His art shows the best intentions of the Catholic Counter-Reformation (which gave birth to the Baroque era, though Protestants would also follow the style). In this worldview, spiritual things are not merely spiritual, and fleshly things are not merely fleshly. There is a unity, the Baroque artists knew, and because Christ personified that unity in the Incarnation, the “earthly” can be holy.

It’s tempting to draw some conclusions about the Austin exhibit from the museum housing it. Visitors are assaulted at the entrance by the James A. Michener collection of 20th Century American Art—including the inexplicable Blue Woman in a Black Chair.

Blue Woman, a nude seated in plastic office furniture, isn’t prurient because it fails to rise to that level. It is too lifeless to provoke any kind of passion. With a coat of paint and some synthetic hair, it might rise to the level of department store mannequin. As it is, it serves mainly to provide a telling counterpoint to the truly reverent Baroque collection, which is above it in all senses of the word.

The Baroque collection is beyond Blue Woman, up a flight of stairs, and past an impressive set of reproductions of classical sculpture. Giovanni Battista Crespi (c. 1567-1630) arrests the eye first with his magnificent St. James Vanquishing the Moors. In this somber work, St. James is rendered in close, telling detail, but the aforementioned Moor is little more than an outline. For Crespi, it seems, the victory, not the victim, is what’s important.

Curator Jonathan Bober notes that “the whole idea of the Baroque is that art should appeal to sight and to feeling.” That’s true, and it goes back to the realization of the Baroque artists that art can appeal to the emotions—to the heart, as well as to the head. The effect can be warm and worshipful, as in The Annunciation, by Veronese (1528-1588), in which a humble Mary assents to the angel. What’s striking about the painting (it was once an altarpiece) is that the scene seems to be set in an Italian villa—expressing, perhaps, that God’s message, “a Son will be given,” applies to all times and to all people.

In David with the Head of Goliath by Claude Vignon (1593-1670), the dramatic light illuminates a weary, glowing David, but fails to warm the gray, pallid, oversized head of Goliath. Like Mary, David is in contemporary clothing, suggesting that the battle isn’t over.

The emotional effects of Baroque art can be profoundly disturbing, as well. Children should be prepared, beforehand, for Giovanni Martielli’s Saint Agatha, a beautiful portrait of an early Christian martyr. To show the manner of her torture and death, Agatha holds shears and a plate, which contains two severed breasts. And yet, Saint Agatha will be much easier to explain than Blue Woman, or any of the other modern works downstairs. —Roy Maynard

Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Library of Congress traveling exhibit

An exhibit that gets it right

Role of religion accurately portrayed

With so many government-supported museums being tainted with political correctness, one almost cringes at the thought of a Library of Congress exhibition on a religious topic. But the Library has managed to create a remarkable, and mostly accurate, exhibition on “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic,” which will tour the country next year [2000]. (An overview of the exhibit can be found at Library of Congress website.)

The exhibition begins with the New England Pilgrims, noting how Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the Bay Psalm Book, and the Geneva Bible influenced them. It then highlights the different religious groups that later took hold in the various colonies and the sweeping, national effects of the Great Awakening. The exhibition makes clear that the American Revolution wouldn’t have occurred without this mass revival happening first, for it “was a largely religious people who rose in rebellion against Great Britain in 1776.”

The founders knew it, too. A key theme of the exhibition is their absolute conviction that religion is essential to the maintenance of republican virtues. The new country’s “public square” overflowed with religion: Congress appointed itself chaplains and, concerned about morality in the armed services, encouraged religious practices in the Army and Navy. For a time, Sunday church services were even held in the House of Representatives, and were attended by none other than Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

While a consensus formed that liberty in the new republic couldn’t survive without religious underpinnings, the exhibition points out the sharp disagreements during the founding era about how best to promote religion. Some argued for general assessment taxes, which would support the church of the taxpayer’s choice; others contended that state funding of any kind undermined true religion. In Massachusetts, a newspaper war broke out between Congregationalists who supported religious taxation and Baptists who opposed it. In Virginia, a coalition of deists and evangelicals (especially Baptists and Presbyterians) defeated Patrick Henry’s bill for a general assessment tax. They also were successful at stopping federal religious taxation.

The exhibition ends by noting that religion prospered under the First Amendment, so that by the time of Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous visit to America in the 1830s, Protestant Christianity had come to be seen as the “national religion,” but one that thrived when separate from the government. Nearly every state government had ceased to support churches, but this was in no way viewed as being anti-religion.

Of course, the exhibition isn’t perfect. For instance, it claims that religious persecution in Europe “rested on the belief that there was one true religion and that it was the duty of the civil authorities to impose it.” The latter belief was a problem, but not the former. Many of those who fought hardest for religious liberty in the United States believed that evangelical Christianity was the only true religion.

But overall, the exhibition is a healthy antidote to the widely held view that religion is at odds with liberty. The world’s best experiment in liberty was, from the very start, thoroughly infused with religion. —Timothy Lamer

Gene Edward Veith Gene is a former WORLD culture editor.

Lynn Vincent

Lynn is executive editor of WORLD Magazine and producer/host of the true crime podcast Lawless. She is the New York Times best-selling author or co-author of a dozen nonfiction books, including Same Kind of Different As Me and Indianapolis. Lynn lives in the mountains east of San Diego, Calif.

Roy Maynard Roy is a former WORLD reporter.

Timothy Lamer

Tim is executive editor of WORLD Commentary. He previously worked for the Media Research Center in Alexandria, Va. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Weekly Standard.

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