Cover Story

Worldview warehouse

Vacationing Americans who visit museums across the country this summer will find more virtual experiences than objective facts. But far from being mere repositories of artifacts, American museums all convey a worldview

Issue: "Worldview warehouses," July 17, 1999

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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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. The Field Museum, Chicago
Admitting its mistakes
"Natural history" museum tells the truth about human sacrifice and tones down the Darwinism
by Gene Edward Veith

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