How Smithsonian Sells Us Short

By William S. Dudley

Over the years those who visited or dealt with the Smithsonian on naval history matters have become acutely aware of this erosion in staff and space. In 1985, the Naval and Military History divisions, which had been in existence since the museum opened in 1964, were combined to form the Armed Forces History Division. The net loss was one naval history curator. Space previously devoted to books on U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard history was converted in 1989 to office space for other units in the museum. A buy-out offer in 1992 left Dr. Langley as the only remaining person in the Naval History Section and the only curator in the Armed Forces History Division. The only other staffers remaining in that division were four museum specialists on the Military History side of the house. In this reduced state, the division disappeared in a subsequent reorganization, and the Armed Forces Collections became a segment of a larger division devoted to history and technology. In 1996, the collection of naval warship plans was transferred to the Transportation Division of the museum, and the specialized books that were shelved in the area were returned to the library.

All of this paints a rather disturbing picture of the priorities and values held by the Smithsonian Institution, an entity established by Congress and devoted to the "advance and diffusion of knowledge." When the museum now known as the National Museum of American History opened, the prevailing assumption was that it would display artifacts reflecting the history of the United States, including the armed forces. Indeed, the armed services were so committed to having the organization present their histories in a unified and objective context that they placed on long-term loan certain objects that filled gaps in the Smithsonian's collections. As originally planned, Armed Forces Hall was to present the history of the military services in a chronological context. When the museum opened in 1964, the chronological displays on the armed forces had been completed only through the Civil War. Soon after this, the escalation of the Vietnam War, along with cuts in funding and changes in attitude with regard to the role of the armed forces in American life, figured prominently in the decision of museum authorities not to complete the hall. 4 Frustrated by the Smithsonian's failure to live up to its commitment, the Navy and Marine Corps established their own museums.

In the absence of such an establishment, the Army funded an exhibit on the American GI as part of its World War II 50th anniversary commemoration. When they provided space for this exhibit in the Armed Forces Hall, Smithsonian authorities did not deem it necessary to indicate that other services also were active in World War II and to direct visitors to resources where they might learn about those contributions. This situation raises doubts about the value the institution places on the nation's military heritage.

All parts of the federal establishment have been confronted with cuts in appropriations while not losing track of their respective basic missions. Yet we read of plans to build new federal museums devoted to specific subject areas. Is it wise to launch such enterprises if funds are supposedly insufficient to staff and support existing museums?

At a time when a host of problems threaten to divide us, it would seem wise for the Smithsonian to call visitors' attention to the roles armed forces have played in building, unifying, and preserving the United States, in transforming the immigrant and the unemployed into useful citizens, in training leaders in military, economic, and political life, and their beneficial influences on education, industry, and social life.

It is time that the Smithsonian Institution's management and staff awaken to the fact that in their zeal to recast and reinterpret American culture, they have committed the grave error of disregarding the importance of military institutions to the vitality and strength of the nation. It is also time for citizens who have observed this abdication of responsibility by a once worthy cluster of museums to suggest to their elected representatives that reform is needed before the Smithsonian's version of the past becomes so alien as to be unrecognizable.

1 D. Fitts, "Smithsonian To Close Its Armed Forces Hall, Change Relic Displays," The Civil War News (November 1996).

2 J. Trescott, "Smithsonian Shrinks; Staff Reduced Through Buyouts, Attrition," The Washington Post, 17 September 1996.

3 R. Scarborough, "PC Makeover Feared in Smithsonian's Military Update," The Washington Times, 25 November 1996. For a contrary view, see letter by S. Crew, The Washington Times, 4 December 1996.

4 See P. K. Lundeberg, "Military Museums," in J. E. Jessup and L. B. Ketz, eds., Encyclopedia of the American Military, (1994), Vol. III, pp. 2133-2157.

Dr. Dudley served on active duty in the USS Cromwell (DE-1014), earned a Ph.D. in history at Columbia University, and taught history at Southern Methodist University. He joined the Naval Historical Center in 1977 and is currently serving as its Director. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Department of the Navy.


Dr. Dudley is the former director of Naval History

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