Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres - Amy Henderson and Adrienne L. Kaeppler, eds., Exhibiting Dilemmas: Issues of Representation at the Smithsonian

Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres

Amy Henderson and Adrienne L. Kaeppler, eds., Exhibiting Dilemmas: Issues of Representation at the Smithsonian

Duncan Ferguson Cameron
Henderson, Amy and Adrienne L. Kaeppler, eds. Exhibiting Dilemmas: Issues of Representation at the Smithsonian. Washington and London: The Smithsonian Press, 1997. 285 pp., illus. $24.95, ISBN 1-56098-690-5.

1 The significance of Exhibiting Dilemmas as an addition to the current stock of collections of essays in museum studies and cultural studies is that it provides superb examples of what curatorship can and should be about. At a time when museums and art galleries seem more likely to add marketing or retail staff to their ranks than strengthen curatorial staff, and when some down-sized or "right-sized" institutions have virtually abandoned their research resources, it is important to have narratives of curatorial adventures in scholarship at hand. These essays focus on the dilemmas of the curatorial enterprise — the political compromise, the power of a pre-emptive mythology, conflicting world views and time frames, the problematic argument for a coherent whole based on the evidence of fragments.

2 William H. Truettner, true to form, provides valuable insights into the dilemma of the curatorial process by setting his hypothetical curators, "A" and "B," in a methodological debate over the interpretation of American historical paintings, all in reference, of course, to the Smithsonian's controversial and more-or-less censored The West as America. Mary Jo Arnoldi does a masterful analysis when dealing with the problem of the Herbert Ward Collection of early twentieth century bronzes depicting African peoples in the tradition of nineteenth and early twentieth century imaging of the Dark Continent. The stereotyping of the peoples of the high arctic as exotic and homogeneous "Eskimo" through museum exhibits, and the dilemma of reconstruction is well documented by William W. Fitzhugh. The curatorial dilemma of collecting and exhibiting contemporary popular culture, for example, Archie Bunker's chair from the All in the Family set, is well explored by Ellen Roney Hughes. The curatorial expertise demonstrated by Richard Kurin, (the Hope Diamond), Tom D. Crouch, (the Wright Flyer of 1903), and Jane Maclaren Walsh, (pre-Columbian crystal skulls), provide exemplars for museum studies students.

3 If there are weaknesses in the book they are found in the "Introduction," where the editors seem less in tune with contemporary thought than their contributors, and most regrettably, in the first essay, "Exhibiting Memories." Steven Lubar, chairman of the Division of the History of Technology at the National Museum of American History, was the curator of World War II: Sharing the Memories. He writes in his essay about the Enola Gay exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum, which preceded Sharing the Memories.

4 The Enola Gay exhibit, which earned pages and hours of media attention, was about the particular aircraft that dropped on Hiroshima the first atomic bomb. There was such outrage at objective interpretation of the artifact and the event from veterans' groups and in Congress that the exhibit was reduced to a nebbish. Lubar explains why his subsequent curatorial exercise, Sharing the Memories, had to be crafted with the "fiasco" of the Enola Gay exhibit and the power of special interest lobbies always in mind. I find it an unfortunate apologia for a squeamish curatorial posture. He faced the curatorial dilemma, but I question his choice of resolution. Compare this essay with Treuttner's contribution, where the imaginary curators debate the interpretation of three history paintings, which presents the dilemma of representation as a dilemma in scholarship, not in public opinion polls, petty politics or media frenzy.

5 Those of us interested in material culture, and the dilemmas to be faced when moving from object to information to ideas, should make special note of this book. The Hope Diamond story, or the curatorial issues surrounding the accessioning of The Woolworth Lunch Counter as an icon of the Civil Rights movement, provide us with (no pun intended) food for thought. Reading these accounts of curatorial research at the Smithsonian Institution and enjoying the wealth of documentation brought to surround an artifact, a work of art or a collection is sumptuous feasting. Along with the praise we may give the curator/authors I suspect there will be envy. The privilege of the authority, the time and the resources to do the curator's job well is much too rare in our Canadian museum community. A few hours with Exhibiting Dilemmas should cause hunger cramps for most of the curators I know today.