Ira Michael Heyman Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
|Photo by Jane Scherr|
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At the Smithsonian, the first thing that landed on your desk was the Enola Gay exhibit, which was a presentation about the meaning of the dropping of the atomic bomb. That issue told you a lot about how museum work was changing and how it had to change. Tell us a little about that.
Well, of course, it all had been planned. The show wasn't up; it was in draft form in terms of its script. And the Air Force Journal, I guess, had blown the whistle on its contents, and in a kind of biased way, but nevertheless, had done it. An enormous amount of criticism ensued from every place. All over the United States. All of the editorial pages, including the Washington Post, which was really rather interesting. The New York Times didn't weigh in with this until way after a decision got made -- and then criticized us. But it didn't say a word at the time all this was occurring.
In any event, it was a very, very uncomfortable kind of a circumstance. And what we sought to do was to judiciously rewrite the script.
Explain for our audience -- the script essentially took one vantage point on the story of the dropping of the atomic bomb ...
Well, let me say this. Chronologically the proposed exhibit started in 1945. It did have a little of Okinawa in it, but that's it. Everything was prospective. So in terms of trying to make any kind of a judgment with regard to the use of that weapon, you might have wanted to start in 1941 with Pearl Harbor or you might want to have started in 1937 with Nanking. You know, there was a rich background with regard to the decision. But [the exhibit] started in 1945. They did try to do something about this, but the curators of the show refused to put it in. So the Director had to get somebody else to organize another show, which I think would have had a possibility of working out.
Then, secondly, it spent a good deal of its time on the horrors that occurred in Hiroshima. And it could have done less, but it did quite a lot. And it's hard to fight with that. But, again, it depends upon what the emphasis is.
Thirdly, it had a lot of wallboards, which tried to describe what were the events that occurred in the decision-making process. And it took a particular point of view to a greater extent than any other point of view, which was a revisionist one -- there's nothing wrong with revisionism, that's what historians are all about. But it didn't take the conventional explanation and put it together with the other. It just used the rather unconventional one. Or less conventional.
And then, lastly, it spent a very large portion of its time on what happened in civilian life in the United States because of the threat of atomic warfare. So the show really couldn't have been better designed to say that Truman not only made a mistake pragmatically -- because the war otherwise would have been over -- but also made an immoral decision. I think that's true, and I think that the people who wrote that script believed that. I don't think this was an evil thing they were doing.
So they were conveying ...
They were conveying what they believed was true.
I learned a lot about a lot of things that I hadn't known, not the least being the power of the media and how difficult it is to dislodge a viewpoint that is established once it's established in scale.
That is the viewpoint of the exhibit or ...
No, the viewpoint of the criticism of the exhibit and the characterization of the exhibit. I couldn't get people to come off that. I really couldn't. We spent a lot of time trying to say to people, "Look. Blah, blah, we're changing it" -- this, that, and the other thing. We were trying to negotiate [to get] some people on our side, because nobody was on our side, or, at least, nobody would come out of the woodwork and say they were on our side. But [to get] people on our side who legitimated a broader view than the narrowest of historical views in the United States. And we were doing pretty well, actually, with the American Legion, where they weren't going to say it's a great show, but they were going to say it's a respectable show. And then the folks over at Air and Space pulled some ridiculously impolitic things that made that impossible, and I just decided there was no way that we were going to be able to put on this show, that the decision had been made already largely in the public that what we were doing was vilifying the president and vilifying the veterans by inference. So I just decided we'd start all over again.
That was very tough, because I know that if I had been secretary during the preparation of this show it wouldn't have come out quite that way. I would have spent a lot of time cajoling, arguing, jumping up and down, doing all the stuff that you do to try to get somebody to change emphasis.
This is consistent with something you said in a speech when you were leaving the Smithsonian at the end of your tenure: "Our obligation is to provide a national place where the many communities of America learn about each other and honor each other's past and present. We are bound together as a people, not in uniformity but in shared hope. And if we get it right, mutual respect."
So it's really again about the theme of inclusiveness with you.
That was my "affirmative action." I had this great opportunity [to say that]. We were starting the process of reconstituting -- it's really the word -- the Star Spangled Banner. The flag that flew over Fort McHenry in the War of 1812, and of about which The Star Spangled Banner was written. We were re-threading it and doing all kinds of things you do to preserve it thereafter. Well, it was such a great media event, number one, and number two, it fit right in to Mrs. Clinton's Millennium program, and she convinced Ralph Lauren to give $10 million towards this project, which was really neat. But everybody wanted a media event out of this. So the president came and Mrs. Clinton came. And Ralph Lauren came. He didn't speak, but the president spoke and I spoke. We were the two speakers. It was such an opportunity for me to push a theme that I really constantly wanted to push, but I didn't have that kind of opportunity otherwise, which was essentially [that] one of the great missions of the Smithsonian was inclusiveness. And I had that opportunity.
I think that your background, your legal training, gave you an incisive look of this new roles that museums have to play in this world, where there are arguments about past history as part of a process of including, maybe, new groups of people.
Yes. Let me say two things about that. First of all, the emergence of under-included people into our world is a great event. And that has to at least be facilitated, in my view, by national museums. That's my view. And so I was pushing that in there. And the second point I wanted to say is this: museums, historically -- either art museums or places for curiosities -- are places for single items, all standing alone. But their very inclusion in the museum made them terribly important. The curators' job was to choose which ones would be there. Okay? And there wasn't a fight about that. If it was there, then it was important. If it was there, then it was beautiful. If it was there, then it was a legitimate object of culture.
Well, what's happened in museums is that we have gone from the era, which was a long era, of the museums as sacred in the sense of giving to these objects a sacred quality by their choice, to a place where you really ought to discuss the importance either of those objects or of whatever it is that you're trying to do in narratives. And, by the way, at the same time we went from the collection of objects, curiosities, paintings, etc., to being places of narration. We've gotten now more interested, at least from time to time, in using the objects to tell a story.
Those who have argued for this have constantly said is that museums ought to be places of discussion. They ought to be fora, they ought to be places where various viewpoints are brought together, which has a parallel with various people, but it comes from a different stream. And I embrace that. I think we ought to have both, for reasons that I've stated from time to time. I embrace that; but museums are not like universities. In universities, I can say something that is startling or has a view, an interpretation. And Harry's going to come over and say, "You're full of baloney," and we're going to have to fight about that. That doesn't happen in museums.
In museums, you put up full show and it's there. People come in and look at it, and then people go away. So, if you're going to really be a forum, you've got to take special efforts to be a forum and to inform about different viewpoints. Then you really can let people make up their mind, rather than simply trying to react to a complex story told by the curator. So, I argued strenuously that having gone from a place of adoration to a place of narration, we owed a real our professional responsibility to show more than one side of the controversy.
In one of your last speeches at the Smithsonian, you were talking about the effect of this exhibit, where important objects from our national history were shown all over the country, and you make note of the crowds that were especially attracted to the hat that Lincoln was wearing at his assassination. And you talk about a kind of a spirit of secular prayer. People wanted to see this in its place. And then you went on to say, "These offerings give an immediate, visceral sense of human loss and memory. A tangible understanding of what really was at stake at a critical time or event." So really, the work of museums is respecting the different perspectives and "giving a sense of the various stakeholders now and in the future with regard to a particular event or object."
Well, I think that's true. I would say there are two tracks here. One is a narration that is to some extent detailed, although I should never say this as a museum person. I think that a lot of those attempts turn out to be cartoon because you just can't go deeply enough to have a really complex narration. But you can make a try. So that's one. When we had our show that went around the country and it had individual objects, it was an old-style show. It was kind of a treasure show. It had individual items in it. There were some who criticized this. Frank Rich really lit into us in The New York Times. Of course, he said, that's just old hat, etc., etc. Well, my view is that you can do both [show objects and tell a story]. And depending upon your selection and how you portray it, you can rely very heavily on objects, if they're objects that are meaningful in terms of the experience, either by reading or whatever one's historical knowledge is, or by the present.
So, we showed the hat of Lincoln, and I didn't realize that this was going to occur: people gathered around it -- some people stayed 10 and 15 minutes just looking at that hat. It's an old stovepipe hat. The top was ... I mean, it was a mess. It was certainly not a thing of beauty. But here was the hat that was worn by this great hero of American history on the night he was killed. And it starts to evoke a lot of -- you know, probably some of them were incorrect recollections. But identification with that man through that event, and a sense of veneration, which really does border on the religious.
If you showed the Mercury capsule, there are enough people who know enough about that event to be able to stand there and say, "The actual capsule!" in which these guys were [sent into space]. If you show one of the Wright brother's planes -- and we had one on this tour; it was not the first one, but the fifth one that they made -- you could just see by its texture, by its simplicity, by everything else what a feat this was that people actually got off the ground in things that looked like this.
There are just some objects that convey all kinds of things that bring about responses of respect, responses of love -- but visceral kinds of responses. And I think that's also one of the jobs of museums.
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