Exhibit A: Behind the Scenes at the Smithsonian

Literary Hill

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Pete Daniel relates his experiences as a former curator at the National Museum of American History in “Curating the American Past.”

Next time you visit a Smithsonian Museum exhibition, you might want to think about what went on behind the scenes to bring it to fruition. In many cases, the process belies the appeal of the finished product.

In “Curating the American Past: A Memoir of a Quarter Century at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History,” Pete Daniel exposes the warts-and-all wrangling that took place over the course of his curatorial career. A historian with a distinguished reputation, he often found himself battling unsympathetic directors to maintain a scholarly anchor for the exhibitions he curated. This was especially true, he notes, as Federal support for museums waned and administrators turned more and more to corporations and wealthy donors who demanded “celebratory” exhibits that presented a one-sided “heroic view of history.” 

As a result, curators frequently “seized on dubious ideas simply because there was funding or shaded scripts to avoid controversy.” Daniel contends that the Smithsonian’s reluctance to confront controversial subjects not only demeaned museum staff but also denied visitors the benefits of their scholarship and permitted “dangerous mythology to fester.” He places the blame squarely on “unlettered Smithsonian secretaries, feckless museum directors, and meddling politicians,” who, he claims, have imperiled the mission of the institution.

Despite his ongoing battles, Daniel displays a passion not only for presenting the complex and exciting history of America to the public, but also for the hard work that goes into mounting an exhibition: the collecting, collaborating, interviewing, and researching. His pathbreaking exhibitions—on American agriculture, music, and photography—represent a legacy of historical integrity and an eloquent rebuff to visionless leadership that values money over truth.

Pete Daniel is an award-winning historian whose previous books include “Lost Revolution: The South in the 1950s” and “Dispossession: Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights.” He retired from the Smithsonian in 2009.