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Group thinkers

Culture | The Smithsonian rejects a grant that celebrates great individuals

Issue: "TNIV makes its debut," Feb. 23, 2002

Not many museums would turn down a $38 million gift, especially in these days of tight budgets and low revenues. But the Smithsonian Institution, the Washington landmark that operates 16 museums, did. Underlying the wrangling between the donor and the curators is a deeper battle over what history is and whether individuals have the power to shape it.

Catherine B. Reynolds offered the Smithsonian $38 million for an exhibit to be titled "The Spirit of America." Designed particularly for children, the exhibit would include a "Hall of Achievers," featuring displays about 100 great Americans, from heroes of the past to modern role models such as Martin Luther King and Michael Jordan. The purpose of her gift, she said, was to demonstrate the power of individuals to shape history and to inspire children by teaching them the true stories of national heroes.

The museum accepted the gifts and started planning the exhibit. But then some 170 outside scholars rose up to complain, along with many on the Smithsonian staff. The charge was "commercialization," that in accepting the gift, the museum would sell out its intellectual integrity to the powers of big money corporations.

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But the Smithsonian already had exhibits, wings, and even buildings named after corporate donors like Kmart, Orkin, and General Motors. Mrs. Reynolds ran not a big corporation, but a philanthropic foundation.

Another complaint was tackiness, that her inspirational figures, as she conceived them, would include TV celebrities Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart. But this from an institution that has been ostentatiously collecting artifacts of the pop culture like Archie Bunker's chair, the set of the Star Ship Enterprise, and artifacts from the Star Wars movies?

No doubt a major factor was resentment by professional curators that the donor was dictating what the exhibit was to be. Usually, the experts come up with an idea, and then seek funding.

But a deeper philosophical difference soon surfaced. According to journalist Rupert Cornwell of the British newspaper The Independent, the staff's main complaint was that the exhibit would focus on individuals rather than groups.

"Apparently," Mrs. Reynolds said, "the basic philosophy for the exhibit-the power of the individual to make a difference-is the antithesis of that espoused by many within the Smithsonian bureaucracy, which is that only movements and institutions make a difference, not individuals. After much contemplation, I see no way to reconcile these diametrically opposed philosophical viewpoints."

Today's academic establishment tends to look down upon the derisively termed "Great Man" approach to history. This is the traditional perspective in which history is treated as the saga of notable individuals-their actions, mistakes, and accomplishments.

More in vogue is the view that vast impersonal forces shape history: cultural movements, economic developments, and social changes.

Influenced by Marxism, which reduces all of history to the dynamics of economics and social class, this view of history is deterministic, seeing individuals as mere expressions of social forces. This "social history" is interested not so much in colorful historical figures as in the ordinary life of the ordinary people of a particular time, the way the masses made their living, with special attention to the way they were oppressed. The ideas of the great minds of the time and individual acts of heroism are less interesting to them than artifacts of daily life-cooking implements, farm tools, and markers of group identity.

Many historians, then, are more interested in "culture," not "individuals." This is why graduates of our schools are notoriously ignorant about the key events of American history and why school textbooks have so little to say about the great names of American history. Instead of learning about national heroes such as George Washington or Daniel Boone, students construct models of colonial farms and do role-playing exercises about slavery.

This is also why the nation's museums, particularly the Smithsonian, have exhibits on such things as American racism against Japan in World War II, but little on the exploits of Medal of Honor winners.

A shift may be in the works. In his book Paul Revere's Ride, the distinguished historian David Hackett Fischer takes issue with the social historians, showing that the individual-with his character, personality, moral fiber, and faith-really does shape history. He demonstrates this not only in his study of the famous patriot but in the thousands of ordinary Americans of the time who likewise had decisions to make.

Today, it is not vast impersonal forces that flew airplanes into skyscrapers, nor is it a mass movement of social groups that is bringing the terrorists to justice. Individual responsibility, the character of our leaders, and the decisions of ordinary Americans matter after all. It always takes historians a while to catch up.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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