Changing Dominant Narratives: Museums & The West

While doing research for one of my other classes, I stumbled upon an article about the Smithsonian’s 1991 exhibit “The West as America, Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820–1920.” The article was originally published in Western Historical Quarterly, and therefore was not without bias, but I was still really excited to read about a large scale museum taking a stand against the harmful dominant narrative surrounding the American West. According to this article, the exhibit’s curatorial premise condemned the art that has informed historians as racist, sexist, and imperialist, and condemned historians for allowing our history to be dominated by the same beliefs.

I was so excited to read this article because, as someone that wants to enter the museum field after graduation, this seemed like a positive impact and something that I could try and emulate. I want to be part of changing harmful dominant narratives. Unfortunately, reading the article was kind of disheartening.

As we’ve learned in class, historical revisionism was a popular topic at the time; the Smithsonian wasn’t unique for suggesting a reinterpretation of the American West (the exhibit built off of Henry Nash Smith, for example). However, the Smithsonian was engaging the public, not just academia. The exhibit therefore faced intense criticism. Funding got pulled for a tour that would have made these ideas more accessible, and two Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee actually tried to cut funding to the Smithsonian Institute as a whole, citing the dangers of liberalism. The timing played a key role. With the Gulf War ending and the Soviet Union collapsing, the mythology of American West was rearing its ugly head as a tool of propaganda to represent American Exceptionalism. People didn’t want to hear that frontier life was actually genocidal. On the other hand, is there a time that people do want to hear that they’re living on stolen land or that their ancestors committed any number of other atrocities?

I really struggled while reading this because all term I’ve walked out of class and wondered: What do I do with this information? How do I stop being a part of the problem and start being part of the solution? I thought maybe museums would be part of my answer, but this article makes me wonder.

According to an analysis of the guestbook, the feedback for the exhibit was actually overall positive, especially with younger visitors. I hang onto this information to stay hopeful. In an effort to sustain my hope, I ask the rest of you for your input: how do you process the information from class? What do you plan on doing to create a better future?