Chapter and Verse: The Return of the Scary

Chapter and Verse is a series that features JHU Press authors and editors discussing the literary landscape of poetry and prose, whether their own creative work or the literature of others.

Guest post by Jerry Griswold

With Halloween around the corner,  we might observe that, paradoxically, the kiss of death for a children’s book these days is when it is dubbed “too scary.” Controversially, such juvenile offerings are the front line in clashes between kids and censoring adults. Grown-ups employ all kinds of mental gymnastics to condemn or justify frightening stories that youngsters, on their part, love in straightforward and uncomplicated ways.

Take Neil Gaiman’s immensely popular The Wolves in the Wall. Readers’ comments on this book have accumulated at Amazon, and they are a study in adult ambivalence: “Any imaginative child will get the humor of the story and will not be scared”; “I don’t think the storyline is the LEAST bit scary and neither did my 4 year old son”; “Not a book for especially wee ones or children prone to nightmares”; and “A little fear can be a healthy and developmentally appropriate thing.” If you read the book aloud to a child, one commentator advises “Watch your tone of voice and keep it lighthearted.” These remarks prompt a question: Who has queasier stomachs, adults or kids?

For a more than a decade, and perhaps at the prompting of anxious parents, childhood bogies have been defanged. In movies like Monsters, Inc. and Shrek, today’s youngsters have been given the pitiable and misunderstood monster; at one point Shrek whimpers, “Ogres have feelings too.” Even a legendary villain has been recast in The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, where Jon Scieszka offers a comically pathetic wolf hamstrung by his porcine pals.

In the last few years, however, the scary has made a comeback. Recent Broadway offerings for the young include a more grim version of Mary Poppins (sometimes dubbed Scary Poppins), a dramatic version of Struwwelpeter (where child-raising and bloodletting are humorously linked), and the reappearance of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (where Roald Dahl’s grim reaper, the Child Catcher, has a conspicuous role). All this occurred while the goth Lemony Snicket books were selling by the cartload and Tim Burton became the twisted darling of comic and grisly PG films. “The gruesome,” critic Ben Brantley observed in the New York Times, is “newly cool.”

It’s more like a return to tradition. The world of children’s book has always been a scary place, even though softheaded adults often misremember it as a harmless and saccharine realm where the sun is always shining. Mention The Story of Babar or The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and grown-ups go misty-eyed. Few recall that six lines into his story, Jean DeBrunhoff introduces trauma when Babar’s mother is shot and killed by the hunter; and hovering over Beatrix Potter’s tale is the fact that Peter’s bunny father was caught and baked in a pie.

Before Harry Potter’s Voldemort, there was Bluebeard and the Wicked Witch of the West. Before Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, that same odd mix of the horrific and the holidays appeared in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Indeed, while the frightening seems a specialty market for adults–some read Stephen King, while others read science fiction and romance–scariness has always seemed an omnipresent feature in children’s stories.

Kids like the adrenaline-fueled sensations described by Washington Irving in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, that Halloween favorite. When Ichabod Crane encounters the Headless Horseman, “his teeth chattered,” “his heart began to thump,” and “his hair rose on his head.” While uneasy grown-ups mount criticisms or defenses of the frightening, youngsters can be found riding roller coasters and playing with replicas of Tyrannosaurus Rex. Juveniles seem hardwired for the scary. How early does this pleasure begin? Sometimes you can say “Boo!” and watch an amused infant crack a smile.

Jerry Griswold discusses scariness in his book Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature.  His most recent offering is Audacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Book.

 

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Confronting the world, shaping national identity

Guest Post by Dane A. Morrison

morrisonISIS, Ebola, globalization, the Ukraine. State-sponsored terrorism, globally transmitted disease, worldwide economic disruption, fraught relations with overseas powers. The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and FOX News shout this constellation of dangers to even the casual, cowering observer. In response, we imagine better times and think of these troubles as symptomatic of a modern world that is more complex, more chaotic, more existentially fraught than anything our early American ancestors would have confronted. Today’s global problems challenge us as well to reflect on questions that are more deeply practical and philosophical, concerns that get to the crux of our national culture. How should we respond the array of challenges that confront us? And, what do our responses say about us as a people?

Those of us who read the past regularly, especially we who take America’s early encounters on the world stage as their subject, know that these are the same questions that confronted Americans at the birth of their new nation. Americans who had called themselves Virginians and Carolinians and New Yorkers were perplexed when confronted with the question, “What then is this new man, the American?” It is intriguing to read their words, recover their voices, and realize that they sought answers from abroad. From inception, we have been concerned with “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” as the Second Continental Congress described in its Declaration of Independence. As Samuel Shaw, one of these early travelers observed, they wanted to know what other peoples thought of Americans, both “nationally and personally.”

This concern—and its solution—were manifested in Americans’ first voyages round the world. As I write in True Yankees:

In the years between the Treaty of Paris (1783) and the Treat of Wangxi (1844), that is, between the end of the War for Independence and the Mexican War, Americans’ first contacts in the Great South Sea—the term that early Americans used to describe the expanse of oceans, lands, and peoples situated between the Cape of Good Hope and the coasts of North and South America—contributed to the economic recovery of their new nation and to the consciousness of their countrymen. Hundreds of merchants, shipmasters, and expatriates shared their experiences in published books and private journals, logs, letters, and newspaper reports. Yankee travelers introduced their countrymen to the ports of Algiers and the bazaars of Arabia, the markets of India and the beaches of Sumatra, the villages of Vietnam and the factories of Canton. But, it was also the particular opportunity, and especial burden, of American travelers in the East to defend their nation’s honor and to define its character. And, in this forgotten aspect of the American experience was a paradox: Their encounters with other peoples in what they called the Great South Sea, depicted in the letters, journals, books, and newspaper reports that they sent home, offered their countrymen the most salient means of understanding their own national identity.

And, so, Yankee voyagers charted their ways through the terrors of the Great South Sea, surviving tropical fever in Batavia and typhoons off Macao; they learned how to adapt to the global economy, negotiating prices with rajahs in Qualla Batoo, compradores in Canton, and banyans in Bombay; and they defended their ships and crews from the ravages of world-wide conflicts, fighting pirates in the South China Sea and European men-of-war in the Indian Ocean.

Encounters with the wider world, enhanced awareness of the experiences of other peoples, and a deeper understanding of who they were as a people gave early Americans a new national confidence and enabled them to better deal with the struggles the world presented. As the Congress toasted two months later at its Independence Day banquet, “May the Simplicity of Manners, Industry and Frugality distinguish the Character of an American” and bring “Liberty, Peace and Happiness to all Nations.” It is surprising that the nation ,so often disparaged today for high-handed imperialism, for foisting its web of culture, commerce, and geopolitical strategies onto the disadvantaged peoples of the globe, should have entered an age of globalism with such self-doubt. Perhaps a greater awareness of their experiences might empower us to situate the complexities of the modern world within a broader, more reflective context.

Dane A. Morrison is the author of True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity, recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is a professor of early American history at Salem State University.


Dane Morrison will be speaking and signing copies of True Yankees at these events this fall:

November 6
, 7:30 p.m.
Salem Maritime National Park Service, Salem, MA
Salem Visitor Center, 2 New Liberty Street, Salem
Free and open to the public, seating limited.
Information: Call 978-542-6286
 or visit the website.

December 11, 7:00 p.m.
Lynn Museum, Lynn, MA
Author talk & book signing
Information: Visit the website.

December 18, 5:30 p.m.
Portsmouth Athenaeum, Portsmouth, NH
Festive book launch, talk & book signing
Information: Visit the website.

 

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Are venture capital funded MOOCs a good idea?

Guest post by Bill Ferster

The pressure from skyrocketing costs and competition from e-learning efforts at universities have made online educational technology a source of much discussion. Teresa Sullivan, the president of the University of Virginia, was summarily fired in a coup d’etat in 2012 (and subsequently rehired because of protests from an outraged faculty and campus community) ostensibly because the university’s governing board of visitors perceived her not to be embracing online education rapidly enough.

If one is to believe the press, from obscure educational journals to the New York Times, the teaching machine for the start of the twenty-first century is the MOOC. Massive open online courses are the latest contender, where courses from commercial companies and prestigious universities such as Stanford, MIT, and Harvard are offered online to huge numbers of participants, often thousands at a time. There are those who view MOOCs as the savior to managing the ever-spiraling cost of higher education, and others who see them as sowing the seeds of the demise of the university as we know it. The truth, of course, lies somewhere between.

It is important to see some of these potentially threatening educational innovations (such as MOOCs) in the same way that their providers see them: as experiments. Daphne Koller, co-founder of venture capital-funded MOOC developer Coursera, views the MOOC as an unprecedented opportunity to use large numbers of people to scientifically test what works. She proposes conducting controlled experiments she refers to as “A/B testing,” wherein a change is made to instruction for some population of students and not for others. Because of the large numbers of students not typically available in traditional educational research, the results of the change can be tested empirically for its effectiveness and the overall instruction changed accordingly.

To me, the more concerning issues about the commercial MOOC providers is the source of their funding: venture capitalists. Venture capital is provided by investment firms to fund early stage companies. These firms typically invest in a large number of startups with the assumption that 90 percent of them will fail, but the 10 percent that thrive will yield a return on investment of at least 300 percent (known in their parlance as a “3-bagger”). This strategy has been extremely successful in the high-technology sector and in large part is responsible for the phenomenal products and companies that have emerged from Silicon Valley. Venture capital firms provide a strong support network to help guide new entrepreneurs, but their model has its darker side.
There is an inherent instability in any “disposable” relationship. The funded companies typically cede a significant amount of control in exchange for the millions of dollars they receive. When the company delivers the kinds of profits that the funders see as significant, that control can be very constructive and nurturing. But if the company underperforms or takes longer to deliver, it can find itself among the “walking dead,” with just enough capital to stay in business but not enough to grow, closed down completely, or merged with another of the firm’s portfolio of funded companies.

The venture funding method has worked well in high-technology, but I worry about the effect of this volatility on education. Students have traditionally relied on the longevity and stability of their institutions, and the basic venture capital model may weaken those properties. This issue will become all the more important as MOOCs inevitably begin to offer accreditation and other forms of credentials validating student efforts.

fersterBill Ferster is a research professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and the director of visualization for the Sciences, Humanities & Arts Technology Initiative (SHANTI). He is the author of  Teaching Machines: Learning from the Intersection of Education and Technology and Interactive Visualization: Insight through Inquiry.

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Taking to the streets and to the internet in Hong Kong

Guest post by Catie Snow Bailard

After four weeks of protest and occupation, which at times have drawn tens of thousands of participants, face-to-face talks between government officials and protest leaders appear to be yielding results. Chinese officials have promised both to issue a public report documenting the protesters’ sentiments and to provide a platform for discussing electoral issues and other concerns of the pro-democracy movement.  In the spirit of democracy, protest organizers are preparing to hold an online straw poll, originally scheduled for October 26th, enabling protesters to vote on whether to accept the government’s proposal. Regardless of the the vote’s result, however, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement intends to continue the occupation.  Led by the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Occupy Central, the dissidents are demanding universal suffrage and that the government retract its recent mandate that all candidates running in the 2017 election for Chief Executive be approved by a government committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.

A quick Google news search reveals the degree to which the Internet has been vital in the organization of the Umbrella Movement, from marshaling and demonstrating support for the movement to documenting police activities and holding government officials accountable for its responses to the protests and occupation. Movement leaders have also used the Internet to publicly issue their demands, and officials have responded in kind, online. Even the hacktivisit group Anonymous threw its hat into the ring, hacking into Hong Kong and Beijing government websites to release sensitive information about the protests into China (where news coverage is highly skewed against the protesters).

Activist movements, such as the one in Hong Kong, highlight the integral role that the Internet and modern day communication technologies, such as smart phones, play in organizing and implementing protests.  For example, smart phones reduce reliance on “brittle planning,” which characterized the types of plans that rely on traditional landline telephones. Whereas protesters previously had to rely primarily on word-of-mouth once they left their homes, mobile phones have greatly diminished this limitation—protesters now use mobile phones to send texts and post messages through social media to change protest venues, tactics, or timing in response to changing circumstances.  Smart phones also yield essential visibility for the movement to audiences outside of the protest movements, particularly with photographs and videos.  Pictures and video posted to social media have been key to rallying support from both domestic and international sources, reporting developments from the ground, and documenting police abuses.

As these protests take center stage, there is one important component of the role that these technologies play in such movements that tends to be largely overlooked—their effect before protesters take to the streets.  While it is clearly important to understand how Internet use can streamline political organization once people are moved to action—which up until now has been the primary focus of scholarly research—the discipline has paid less attention to whether Internet use influences citizens at the foundational, antecedent stage of political action.

The Internet’s capacity to alter the information and expectations that shape citizens’ evaluations of their government can, and often does, lead to political organization and action.  After all, the impetus to act politically—from day-to-day civic activities to the more extreme cases of protest and revolution—begins in the minds of men and women. Democracy’s Double-Edged Sword examines how Internet use influences citizens’ evaluations of their governments’ performance, particularly how Internet use and digital era communication affects the quality of democratic practices available in a given nation. In this vein, I argue that Internet use meaningfully alters not only the quantity and range of information but also the criteria through which individuals evaluate their governments—shaping their evaluations and satisfaction accordingly. This is an important consideration, since it is these evaluations that can and will encourage men and women to act and organize toward political ends.

The findings uncovered by my research substantiate the Internet’s clear, consistent, and considerable influence on democratic satisfaction and related evaluations. Whereas the Internet is correlated with enhanced satisfaction in advanced democracies, its use depresses satisfaction in nations with weak democratic practices—the types of evaluations that can foment and focus public discontent that fuels protest movements, such as Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. However, further findings yielded by my research also reveal that one democratic gain, such as more critical evaluations of poorly performing governments, does not automatically set off a chain of entirely pro-democratic gains in citizens’ attitudes and behaviors. Rather, the Internet’s influence on evaluations, and subsequently on behavior, is a complex, contextually dependent process that in some instances will prove a double-edged sword for democracy and democratization.

 

CatiBailarde Snow Bailard is an assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University and the author of Democracy’s Double-Edged Sword, published by Johns Hopkins.  An interview with Bailard can be read here.  To register for Professor Bailard’s November 3rd GWU book talk click here.

 

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Facing the Challenge Offered by Graphic Medicine

Guest Post by Susan Squier and J. Ryan Marks

Since its beginning, the journal Configurations has fostered “the multi-disciplinary study of the relations among literature and language, the arts, science, medicine, and technology.” Those are the words of editors Melissa Littlefield and Rajani Sudan when they assumed the editorship two years ago. The pair promised the journal would stretch to include work that brings together “colleagues of different disciplines who may debate principal methodologies or ideas, but who also work to exceed their disciplinary boundaries.” Well, comics and medicine make a pretty volatile mixture, so the special issue we recently edited on graphic medicine fits right in with the original mission and the intent of the editors.

configurations_frontGraphic medicine may not be a familiar term, but readers of Configurations will find recognizable and engaging the heady mixture of art and literature, scholarship and practice that characterizes this field devoted to “the interaction between the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare.” As scholars have begun to write about graphic medicine, their transdisciplinary work offers acute new perspectives on the core fields that have made the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA) such a high-voltage organization since its inception.

Consider some of these new perspectives. The literary understanding of memoir and life writing is now taking account of the disruptive urgency of graphic memoirs and underground comics like Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles, and Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary. Comics written from the perspective of patients and family members, such as Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner’s Our Cancer Year and David B’s Epileptic, are calling into question the epistemological authority of the medical profession. Comics created by physicians and psychiatric nurses, such as Ian Williams’s Bad Doctor and Darryl Cunningham’s Psychiatric Tales, are puncturing the myth of Dr. Kildare and uncovering the personal vulnerability of healthcare workers, as well as their struggles with institutional medicine. And graphic pathographies like Brian Fies’s Mom’s Cancer and David Small’s Stitches show us biomedical technology from a different light, revealing that procedures, scans, tests, and new drugs can offer stressed healthcare providers an easy alternative to confronting the actual emotional and physical vulnerability and pain of their patients.

Indeed, the field of graphic medicine challenges our very notions of what art, medicine, literature, and scholarship should look like. We use the visual term here advisedly, for graphic medicine is, above all else, a visual medium. “Juxtaposing words and images in deliberate sequence”—the phrase is Scott McCloud’s, from his iconic Understanding Comics—works of graphic medicine both tell and show us how it feels to be sick, to undergo medical treatment, to practice healthcare, or to engage in the work of caregiving.

As the essays in the special issue demonstrate, the stakes of engaging in this transdisciplinary field are multiple: aesthetic and pragmatic, ethical and practical, analytic and emotional—frequently, all at once. Using juxtaposed words and images in a sequence to express an experience that is at once quite specifically embodied and yet universal, indeed inevitable, complicates productively the ways one can write about, visualize, understand, and feel the impact of medical treatment, illness, disability, and caregiving. How a scene is drawn will shape how it is framed and perceived: the images may expand, explode, or even contradict a narrative, enrich characterization, and control the pacing, mood, and import of a series of events.

As with many new enterprises, there is a temptation toward the exclamatory, even the evangelistic: comics can produce better doctors and better patients! Comics can enable a therapeutic expression of difficult experiences! Comics can reach broader audiences! All of these statements are true, and yet, as we selected works for this special issue, we wanted to move beyond that initial celebratory impulse to demonstrate that graphic medicine—as art, scholarship, and something combining both—is subtle, analytic, and complex.

We selected works, then, that exemplify some of the major strands of graphic medicine as a mode of scholarly inquiry, a genre of comics, and a form of science studies. We wanted to include works by people in a number of different disciplines and lines of work, and we are happy to say that we were successful in this goal, as a glance at the contributors list will indicate. We also wanted to show the field as practiced by those new to it (after years as senior scholars or as newly minted junior scholars), as well as the work of some of its major voices. We have chosen comics that give visual access to an experience beyond the grasp of written narrative, and we have chosen essays that push beyond even the formal conventions of the scholarly enterprise. Finally, we looked for work that would speak to the Configurations reader/viewer—aesthetically, emotionally, politically, intellectually.

In our compilation of the special issue, we dismissed the customary practice of grouping different genres together in the table of contents, instead opting for an arrangement that reflects the leveling of disciplinary hierarchies that is the essence of graphic medicine, hoping to honor the joint endeavor and creative encounter that is its essence: the incitement to conversation and collaboration between people who are differently positioned, in disciplines, in modes of work, and in embodiment.

Susan Squier teaches comics in her Women’s Studies and English seminars at Pennsylvania State University. A past president of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts and one of the organizers of the graphic medicine conferences, she coedits the Penn State Press book series Graphic Medicine and is coauthor of the forthcoming Graphic Medicine Manifesto.

J. Ryan Marks is a PhD candidate in English literature at Pennsylvania State University whose research interests include the politics and aesthetics of ranting in twentieth-century American fiction.

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Meet us in Pittsburgh: The Wildlife Society

Guest post by Vince Burke

It was one of those days that every editor dreams of having. Just as I was beginning to plan my trip to The Wildlife Society annual conference in Pittsburgh, I received word. The two big book awards for 2014 had been announced and Johns Hopkins University Press had published both of them. The first award was for the best edited volume, and Nova Silvy’s The Wildlife Techniques Manual, seventh edition, was the winner. The second award, for best authored book, was won by C. Kenneth “Ken” Dodd, Jr.’s Frogs of the United States and Canada. On Sunday night, October 26th, I’ll be in the audience at the awards dinner, happy about the small part I played in helping Ken and Nova complete their masterpieces.

For the rest of the meeting, however, you’ll find me at the Johns Hopkins University Press booth in the exhibit hall, standing near the new revised edition of the classic book, Ducks, Geese, and Swans of North America. Following in the footsteps of Francis Kortright and Frank Bellrose, this new edition is a 2-volume masterpiece by Guy Baldassare. A proven bestseller (the last edition of Ducks, Geese, and Swans sold over 250,000 copies), this 2-volume set retails for an amazingly low $69.95. During the meeting you’ll be able to purchase this title, and all our books, for 7 cents on the dime (that is, for 30% off)!

doddvols1&2I hope you will stop by and see the large collection of wildlife books that we publish, especially those we are proud to publish in association with The Wildlife Society. Sightings at the booth of TWS book series editor Paul Krausman are common, as are occasional visits by Johns Hopkins authors (past, present, and future) such as Kimberly Andrews, Jerry Belant, Travis DeVault, Dan Decker, George Feldhamer, Stan Gehrt, Bruce Leopold, Jim Miller, Mike Morrison, Priya Nanjappa, Nils Peterson, Russ Reidinger, Seth Riley, Shawn Riley, Amanda Rodewald, Nova Silvy, and others.

We are very proud of the high-quality books we produce at Johns Hopkins, but even more proud of the talented authors and volume editors with whom we work. If you have an interest in creating a book, please take that first step and stop by our booth so we can chat. Our goal is to work with the members of The Wildlife Society to produce the finest books in the field. Whether you are a reader of these books, or aspire to write your own, we look forward to chatting with you in the Steel City.


New and forthcoming:

Wildlife Management & Conservation, edited by Paul R. Krausman and James W. Cain III, eds.
The Wildlife Techniques Manual, edited by Nova J. Silvy
Roads and Ecological Infrastructure, edited by Kimberly M. Andrews, Priya Nanjappa, and Seth P. D. Riley
Wildlife Habitat Conservation, edited by , Michael L. Morrison and Heather A. Mathewson


Executive Editor Vincent J. Burke, PhD, acquires books in science and mathematics for the JHU Press; follow him on Twitter at @VBurke2. In Pittsburgh from October 25-30 at The Wildlife Society Annual Conference,  meet Vince  at the JHU Press exhibit in booth 102; follow The Wildlife Society and read more about the conference on Facebook and Twitter.

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Filed under Animals, Baldassarre, Biology, Conservation, Ducks, Geese, Life Science, Nature

Thinking about display and design at the Smithsonian

Guest post by Robert C. Post

Bob Post 1On the dust jacket of my book, Who Owns America’s Past, there is a blurb from Dr. Deborah Douglas, Director of Collections at the MIT Museum and a marvelous historian. Debbie calls it “part history, part memoir, and part polemic,” and I’ve had to admit that she “got” my book in a way I never intended. The book addresses ways in which the Smithsonian Institution—in particular the Museum of American History and the National Air and Space Museum—has put artifacts on display, and on that basis it can also be separated into three parts, in a way I fully intended. The conventions for exhibits are categorized under three different headings. First, there are exhibits of one particular type of artifact that are collections-driven—a Hall of Horology, Railroad Hall (pictured above), and so on. When artifacts are small, such as clocks and watches, there may be dozens or hundreds of them arrayed in display cases. When they are large, as with locomotives, one or two of them may dominate an entire exhibit hall by their dramatic presence.

Bob Post 2Then, there are exhibits that can be called story-driven, often with names like the titles of books—We the People, Suiting Everyone, A Nation of Nations (pictured right). In conceiving such exhibits, a narrative is developed first, and artifacts of many different kinds are then deployed like illustrations in a book. Sometimes the techniques of exhibit design, such as dramatic lighting, are as striking as the artifacts themselves.

Finally, there are exhibits that are best called postmodern. A pioneering example of this, The Henry R. Luce Hall of News Reporting (pictured below). Here, “real” artifacts are intermixed with “props,” and together they are exhibited in whatever historical context seems to offer the most potential for immersing an audience in some sort of “experience.” Can’t you hear the sculpted newsboy calling, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”?

Bob Post 3In postmodern exhibitry, “realities” are constructed from an array of storytelling possibilities; they are like a literal reading of historian Hayden White’s remark that “any historical object can sustain a number of equally plausible descriptions or narratives of its processes.”

It is tempting to cast these three kinds of exhibits in an evolutionary sequence, from spare taxonomies with only one tale to tell, to the collaborative inventions of storytellers (curators) and dramatists (designers) selecting from many possible options. Even today, however, the Smithsonian still stages collections-driven exhibits, one reason being that the other two types are much more expensive to mount. Both are design-intensive, and postmodern exhibits also involve costly elements of “experience”—sound, fury, electromechanical interactives. Exhibits of this type are almost always a product of “outside” funding, corporate or institutional. Are we to assume, then, that they may harbor some sort of “spin,” to the order of donors? Would The Henry R. Luce Hall have feature Time and Life at the expense of Newsweek and Look?

Or, coming up to date, would The General Motors Hall of Transportation do more with Chevrolets than with Fords? Actually, it does not; to assume otherwise would be mistaken. But another assumption, that collections-driven exhibits are somehow more certain to be “objective,” this is also mistaken. Something exhibited even in the most unadorned fashion—the old locomotive all by itself, say—is being affirmed: People are being told that this is worthy of being “in the Smithsonian,” and it is worth celebrating. So, back to Dr. Douglas’s blurb and the characterization of my book as “part polemic.” This refers largely to the artifact on the cover—the Enola Gay, the B-29 from which an atomic bomb was loosed on Hiroshima in 1945. Fifty years later, when the Smithsonian planned to display the Enola Gay, it seemed that there were two “equally plausible” narratives. One of them would include evidence of what happened on the ground: melted watches and lunchboxes, total ruination, ghastly photos. The other would be limited to the airplane itself as a technological marvel. It was the latter narrative that won out after a wrenching political dispute, and the way it is presently displayed. My distress about this is why I can now understand Debbie’s three part assessment, ending with “part polemic.”

Bob Post received his Ph.D. from UCLA in 1973, and then was employed by the Smithsonian for twenty-three years, as a technician, historian, editor, and exhibit curator. Exhibits are the subject of his latest book from Johns Hopkins University Press, Who Owns America’s Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History. Pictured in the photos above, showing off exhibits for which they were responsible, are two of his most esteemed colleagues: Jack White (with the locomotive), also an prizewinning Johns Hopkins author, and Peter Marzio (with the newsboy), who followed his Smithsonian tenure with a distinguished career as director of the Houston Art Museum. A note of clarification: The Museum of American History opened in 1964 as the Museum of History and Technology; the name-change took place in 1980.

 

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Filed under American History, American Studies, D.C., History of technology, Popular Culture, Washington