January 20th, 2002
History For $ale
By Bob Thompson
The microphone emits a burst of explosive crackling and Lawrence Small recoils in mock alarm, as though under attack.
He stands alone onstage in an auditorium at the National Museum of American History, a linebacker-sized man with rimless glasses and a hard-working salesman’s smile. Tense staffers overflow the seats and line the walls. It’s not a menacing-looking crowd—these are museum people, after all—yet the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution could be forgiven for suspecting that someone here might lob a grenade in his direction.
Just six days earlier, on May 23, 2001, a group of American History scholars gave him a public vote of no confidence, telling his bosses on the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents that recent Small decisions "jeopardize the integrity and authority of this beloved institution." Feelings are running high, so much so that the museum’s director felt the need to ask his staff to be "respectful" in questioning the secretary.
The heart of their complaint is that in his eagerness to negotiate more than $ 100 million in gifts from real estate developer Kenneth E. Behring and businesswoman Catherine B. Reynolds, Small has simply handed the donors the keys to the museum. The Reynolds gift in particular, which calls for the construction of a 10,000-square-foot hall of achievement devoted to "life stories of eminent Americans," has become a flash point for the secretary’s critics. What they saw on the Web site of the American Academy of Achievement—a little-known organization run by Reynolds’s husband, Wayne, from which the exhibition idea derives—did not reassure them; with its inspirational themes and "Steps to Success," it looked less like history than like something out of a self-help book. Nor were they comforted when Catherine Reynolds was quoted as saying that Oprah Winfrey, Sam Donaldson and Martha Stewart, among others, were the kind of eminent Americans she had in mind.
"Will the Smithsonian Institution actually allow private funders to rent space in a public museum for the expression of private interests and personal views?" the protesting scholars asked.
The microphone crackles again, then goes off for a while. But Larry Small’s unamplified voice is strong enough for him to carry on.
Small says his goal is to transform the National Museum of American History into "a stunning, powerful, compelling place." He says he wants its visitors to be able to learn "what has caused the United States to become the great society that it has become." And he assures a skeptical questioner—because he’s "talked to Ken Behring about it, and also Cathy Reynolds"—that the donors certainly don’t expect to be "deciding which label should go where" in the exhibitions they will fund.
Up goes a hand along the far wall. It belongs to a curator named Barbara Clark Smith, who tells the secretary that he’s missing the point.
Small’s decisions "preempt the issue of control," she says. If he has in fact committed the museum to a hall of fame, it doesn’t much matter who gets to tinker with the details. "The historical approach to achievement in America, which many of us would love to do, would look very, very different" from what the donor appears to have in mind, Smith explains. And she asks the secretary if Reynolds might be willing to trade in "her preconception of a hall of achievement" and replace it with "an actual historical exhibition."
When she’s finished, the auditorium erupts in applause.
Small keeps smiling.
"What she would say is, you can do both," he tells Smith cheerfully. "She would say that you have $ 80 million from Ken Behring, and he, I can tell you right now, would love what you just said."
This is not what Reynolds actually does say, however, when asked about her doubters at the museum. Months later, she and Wayne remain hurt and angered by the people who applauded at that meeting.
Catherine Reynolds has a theory about them.
"I suspect that they have a track record," she says, "where they’ve gone out and asked people to fund their new exhibitions that they’ve come up with on their own. And there hasn’t been, obviously, a flood of people coming to support those."
Wayne Reynolds has a question for them.
"Why don’t you ask them what they’ve ever done for America," he says.
"Biography Is Inspiring If Told Correctly’
Who owns American History? Who decides what version of our collective past our only truly national historical museum will present?
It’s a question that could have been asked at any point in the museum’s 38-year existence. But it has never been raised more forcefully—or with more literal meaning—than in the two years since Larry Small signed on to lead the Smithsonian.
Small came to the job in January 2000, after a high-profile banking career at Citicorp/Citibank and Fannie Mae. Some Smithsonian people viewed his appointment with concern, noting that, unlike previous secretaries, he had no credentials as a scholar and no experience with nonprofit research or educational institutions. Others fervently hoped he would bring with him the kind of management competence the Smithsonian notoriously lacked, not to mention some much-needed fundraising clout. The new secretary himself had a single, sweeping goal: "I want to modernize everything of consequence," he explained.
When he started defining modern, the arguments began.
Well before the American History dispute went public, the scientific side of the Smithsonian was in open revolt over what many perceived as an assault—under the cover of modernization—on the institution’s research function. The rebellion forced Small to reverse a decision to shut down the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va., and to defer, pending further study, his attempt at a major reorganization of Smithsonian scientific activity. It looked for a while as if science would be the Smithsonian battlefield, but the historians’ action last spring opened a second front in an increasingly public anti-Small campaign.
The stakes in this new confrontation were far higher than the contents of a single exhibition. The two sides had radically different ideas about what the National Museum of American History—and by extension, the Smithsonian Institution as a whole—should be for.
Some common ground exists, of course. Everyone involved, including Small, the donors, the museum staff and the 6 million or so people who visit it annually, would agree that NMAH is an American treasure house, the repository of priceless and varied national icons. Its collection of more than 3 million objects includes the original Star-Spangled Banner; the oldest operable locomotive in the world; Archie and Edith Bunker’s "All in the Family" chairs; the Woolworth’s lunch counter from the Greensboro, N.C., civil rights sit-in; and the wooden lap desk on which Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. Everyone would also agree that on some basic level, what the museum is about is our identity as Americans—that it exists to help us explore where we came from and how we arrived at the place we now find ourselves.
Yet there is no shared understanding of what the phrase "help us explore" really means.
To historians and museum people, the past is complicated and multilayered, and the study of history is less a straightforward recitation of facts than an ongoing argument about what those facts add up to. They spend their professional lives rethinking the American story to reflect new information, new insights and shifting cultural perspectives, and one of their main goals is to weave the understanding they’ve gained into their public presentations. Spencer Crew, who resigned as the museum’s director last fall, once tried to explain this goal:
"Our task is to begin to illustrate the richness and complexity of history," he said. "You want to teach people to be critical thinkers, so that they can navigate the world in which they live."
To talk to Wayne and Catherine Reynolds, Ken Behring and Larry Small, however, is to understand that the encouragement of critical thinking about history—while perhaps not a bad thing in itself—is certainly not what they see as the museum’s primary goal.
The Reynoldses express this the most directly. Their Smithsonian exhibition will be "a terrific opportunity," Wayne Reynolds says, to send young people "a message about great Americans." That message will include not just what they achieved, but the personal attributes that allowed them to succeed—so "kids can go in there and say, "I got it, Michael Jordan had a passion about something, he loved basketball, he practiced hours and hours . . .’
"History is biography," Reynolds adds. "And to me, biography is inspiring if told correctly."
A biographical approach to history can be as complex and contextualized as the biographer chooses to make it, but the Reynolds version seems fairly simple: It combines the modern exaltation of celebrities with the so-called great man theory of history that flourished in the 19th century. And it points to another culture clash between the donors and the museum.
"We’re not a great man/great woman place," says Bernard Finn, a longtime technology curator who became one of the spokesmen for the protesters. "This museum is about context, about putting people and events in place within the social fabric." Following the lead of the history profession generally, NMAH has spent the last couple of decades exploring American history primarily through the stories of groups: the masses of women, for example, who moved "From Parlor to Politics"—as the title of one exhibition has it—when they fought for the right to vote. Even the museum’s quintessential "great woman" show, on first ladies, was redone to place its subjects in a wider historical context. More typically, if the curators have chosen to highlight individual lives, they’ve tended to pick those that evoke the experiences of ordinary Americans.
Much could be said about the divergent views of the two camps on other subjects as well: on how you draw the line between education and entertainment, for example, or whether living individuals should be placed on museum pedestals. But there’s a far more crucial distinction that lies behind the bitter faceoff at NMAH.
One side has money to fund exhibitions.
The other doesn’t.
And if you want to understand how the national history museum of the richest and most powerful country in the world turned into a charity case—well, a little history is required.
The Kennedy Era Meets Ronald Reagan 101
The Smithsonian has always been an odd mix of the private and the public. It gets 70 percent of its overall budget from the federal government, yet it has been partially supported by private funds ever since Englishman James Smithson bequeathed his fortune to the United States more than a century and a half ago to aid in "the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Still, when American History was founded, there was no thought that it would need to solicit outside dollars.
Plans for the museum came together in the late 1950s and early 1960s. "With Cold War tensions running high," as Steven Lubar and Kathleen M. Kendrick explain in their new book, Legacies: Collecting America’s History at the Smithsonian, "many officials keenly felt the need for a museum that would illustrate the "American way of life’ and celebrate the nation’s cultural, scientific, and technological achievements."
Walk through the ground floor of NMAH today and you can still see some of the initial displays that resulted. There’s the power machinery hall, where you can admire behemoths like the Riedler Pumping Engine, part of the first hydroelectric station at Niagara Falls. There’s the civil engineering hall, where you can trace the history of bridge-building through a series of painstakingly constructed models. There are rooms filled with massive locomotives and vintage cars.
All these things are still here, in part, because the museum has lacked the funds to redo these exhibitions. But the bridges, trains and automobiles also reflect another defining fact about NMAH: Its founders intended it to be a technology museum—not a broad-based history museum at all. The Smithsonian’s cultural, social and political history collections were added late in the game. And this marriage of convenience—then known as the National Museum of History and Technology—was guaranteed to appear incoherent, because in the public exhibition spaces, its two halves rarely met.
Until Roger Kennedy tried to knock their heads together, that is.
Kennedy arrived at the museum in 1979 after an eclectic career that had included banking in Minnesota, making documentaries at NBC, a stint at the Ford Foundation and the publication, as an enthusiastic amateur, of a number of historical works. In 13 years as director, he left a mark that no one has matched. "There’s only Roger Kennedy for impact," says Marc Pachter, who became NMAH’s acting director last November. "Whether you love him or hate him, you cannot speak about that museum without Roger Kennedy."
The first thing he did was change its name. Understanding its split personality and wanting to emphasize the broader narrative of the nation’s history, he got permission to drop the "Technology." Once he’d won this symbolic round, he took on the more difficult task of changing the reality. He encouraged the notion, then coming into vogue, that technology exhibits should focus on the social impact of the machines.
At the same time, he steered the whole museum toward what was known as "the new social history." The idea of doing "history from the bottom up"—with its emphasis on groups who’d been left out of earlier historical scripts—had been firmly entrenched in academia for a decade, but it was still a novelty in museums. Kennedy wanted exhibitions that included diverse voices, and he pushed hard to recruit a staff that could do them.
Among the results was the much-praised "Field to Factory," which opened in 1987. Curated by Crew, who’d been an early Kennedy hire, it traces the mass movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North and ends with the provocative question: "Was it worth it?" But Kennedy’s greatest triumph in the critical-thinking category may be another exhibition, done the same year, on the occasion of the bicentennial of the Constitution.
"A More Perfect Union" chose to commemorate America’s most sacred text by telling a story of perhaps its greatest violation: the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. "The magic of the American system is to be able to admit error and correct for it," Kennedy says, looking back on what appeared to some as a shocking decision. "We set about to reacquaint Americans with the ambiguity of public life and the ambiguity of American institutions, right in the maw of the press and the Congress, which is always reaching for artificial, false simplicity." The result was a show that highlights both the Constitution’s fragility and its resilience—and one that resonates particularly strongly today.
Kennedy had plenty of detractors, including a sizable contingent of the science and technology curators, who didn’t want to be doing social history, thank you very much. He had an outsized personality that made him a difficult boss. The most damaging criticism you can make of his stewardship of the museum, however, is that for all his efforts, he never did succeed in making it a coherent whole. And the most obvious reason for this is something he proved powerless to change.
When he arrived, in 1979, there was at least some federal money still available for public programming.
By the time he left, in 1992, all significant exhibitions had to be done with private funds.
People at the Smithsonian tend not to agree on precisely how or when it became impossible for its museums to pay for major exhibitions in-house. Some mention the drying up of the bicentennial allocations that fueled programming in the 1970s, creating a false sense of infinite possibility. To others, the answer is simply "Ronald Reagan 101," by which they mean the dramatic revision of spending priorities that was a major legacy of Reagan’s presidency.
The Smithsonian, meanwhile, had been growing larger and more ambitious—and when its funding environment began to change, it didn’t exactly turn on a dime. Neither legendary secretary S. Dillon Ripley nor his successors, Robert McC. Adams and I. Michael Heyman, managed to do much of anything to address the problem. The institution, as Pachter puts it, "continued to be ambitious in its programming in the face of declining expectations of federal support," and it did this "without adding up all the numbers."
It was the combination of ambition and poverty that led to the first knock-down, drag-out funding fight at NMAH. To get the full flavor of this particular who-owns-history tale, you’ll want to take a look at a display labeled "Family Fallout Shelter," in an exhibition called "Science in American Life."
Dreamed up in the ‘80s, though it didn’t open until 1994, "Science in American Life" seemed like a reasonable enough collaboration, at least in theory. The museum had a show it wanted to do. There was little government money available for exhibitions, and no real prospect of getting more. Along came the American Chemical Society with $ 5.3 million to spend.
What luck! What timing!
There was only one hitch: The two parties had entirely different shows in mind.
What Kennedy and his staff had in mind was something on the social and cultural effects of science and technology—an exhibition that would show how the onward march of scientific progress was bound up, for better or worse, with our daily lives. What the American Chemical Society had in mind wasn’t terribly specific, but it clearly had more to do with the progressive evolution of scientific ideas—with pure science, in other words.
Negotiations ensued. They did not go smoothly. But the money remained extremely tempting, and a compromise was worked out. It included a hands-on science center, to be set up next to the exhibition, and an elaborate consultation process involving an advisory board chaired by the chemists. The museum, however, retained final control of the script.
Which is where the fallout shelter comes in.
One day, a letter arrived from a man in Indiana with a shelter he wanted to donate. It had been purchased for $ 1,800 in 1955 and was buried in his family’s front yard. How perfect, thought the curators. What could be more emblematic of the way scientific discoveries—in this case, nuclear fission—had altered 20th-century lives? So they had the thing dug up and shipped east, and they wrote it into their plans for "Science in American Life."
The advisory board had a lot to say about that fallout shelter. "Too negative, too negative, too negative," is how one curator who worked on the show sums up the reaction. Critics on the board saw the shelter, and much of the rest of the exhibition, as having nothing to do with pure scientific discovery and everything to do with the kind of technological applications that scientists do not control. The chemical society suspended funding at one point and brought in a Nobel laureate to go over the script, but eventually, the show went up pretty much as the curators had designed it.
If you walk through "Science in American Life" today, you’ll have no trouble seeing where the disconnect lies. The show is really about our changing relationship to the idea of progress. There’s not much on pure science or the thrill of scientific discovery, and there’s a great deal on science’s unintended consequences.
There are a couple of obvious ways to spin this story. You could argue that the museum did just what it should be doing: producing a complex and provocative exhibition independent of the source of the funds. Or you could say it never should have taken the money in the first place. But the point here is not to paint the decision as an easy one.
No. The point is that strange things can happen in a museum that’s desperate for cash.
"Did We Have Malls in the 19th Century?’
Follow the money around the museum’s three floors of public galleries and you can see the results of the funding crunch virtually everywhere you look.
Take the mystifying exhibition called "A Material World" that greets you when you enter from the Constitution Avenue side. It was funded by DuPont and it turns out—upon patient inspection—to be about the physical materials objects are made of. Which might be fine if it were tucked in a room by itself somewhere. But as a defining introduction to the National Museum of American History, it makes no sense.
So why is it here?
Well, DuPont had been promised a prime location, and couldn’t be induced to change its mind.
Or take the main entrance off the Mall. There’s a museum shop to the left of you, a museum shop to the right of you, and straight ahead, where the Star-Spangled Banner used to hang—before it came down, as a brightly painted sign informs you, for preservation work made possible by "major support from Polo Ralph Lauren"—you’re assaulted by a giant introductory video whose glowing gold "H" logo makes you think you’ve stumbled into the History Channel by mistake.
Or take the flashy "Information Age" exhibition, which was put together with $ 10 million from a consortium of information technology companies and which, at the time of its opening in 1990, was characterized as a bit too uncritical both in the press and by the Smithsonian secretary himself. Then compare this with "From Parlor to Politics," the distinctly low-rent women’s history show, which was done with less than a tenth of the "Information Age" money—$ 850,000, acquired through "eight years of fundraising piddling little grants," as its curator, Edith Mayo, puts it. "Anybody less insane than I would have had enough sense to give up," says Mayo, who goes on to make the point that a computer show has a natural funding constituency, while the average social history show does not.
Or walk a hundred yards down the hall from "Information Age," where you’d find a room full of vintage farm equipment that looks as though it hasn’t been touched since 1964. "I’ve wanted to redo the agriculture hall ever since I got there," says curator Pete Daniel. What Daniel wanted to do, based on the research he’d done for a fair chunk of his working life, was a show on Southern agriculture from the time of George Washington forward, "which is this vast story of the expansion of cotton, other crops, slavery, the Civil War, the results of the Civil War, the new labor system." He could never get it funded. "The best lead we had was with John Deere," he says, and there came a moment when "I thought the guy was going to say, "Fine.’ "
He didn’t, though.
Instead, he looked at Daniel and said, "Why don’t you do wheat?"
But to fully grasp the way today’s National Museum of American History has been shaped—or more precisely, rendered shapeless—by the struggle for exhibition funding, you need to hear Keith Melder tell the tale of the Great Century Scheme.
Melder is a political history curator who retired in 1995 after working for 12 years on a project that threatened the sanity of everyone involved. "It was the most severe professional experience of my life," he says. "It’s one of those things you never forget totally and never recover from totally."
The idea was to give the museum an anchoring central narrative by doing three major social history shows—one each on life in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. In the beginning, there was federal money for this: enough to get the 18th-century show up, at least, and get started on the 19th. But as the ‘80s wore on, it melted away.
The century scheme had plenty of problems besides money—the concept was impossibly unwieldy, for one thing—but there’s no question that the loss of federal funds was critical. Fundraising was a new game, and people weren’t good at it. Somebody went after the Whitman chocolate company, but that went nowhere. Negotiations with a credit card company fizzled out. Melder’s boss, Gary Kulik, remembers one fundraiser asking him, "Did we have malls in the 19th century and could we convince those companies?"
"We were thrown from pillar to post in concocting schemes to make this attractive to different fundraisers," Melder says. For example, "we made some efforts to slant the Western section in a way that would please Wells Fargo." Perhaps a stagecoach—the bank’s symbol—could become a central icon. Perhaps the script could place some special emphasis on Western business. It was part of the story in any case . . .
But Wells Fargo didn’t bite. Neither did anyone else, really. In the early ‘90s, facing reality, the museum decided to shrink the show by more than half. It had five sections by that time—on immigration, industrialization, the African American experience, the West, and the removal of the Cherokees—each of which was drastically cut to fit a more realistic budget.
Then Secretary Heyman got hold of the scripts and lopped off the last two sections.
"Too much white male bashing" was the verdict that got back to the curators. This came in the wake of the Enola Gay fiasco at the National Air and Space Museum, in which hostile reaction to a proposed reexamination of the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had created a new kind of funding crisis. With angry lawmakers threatening to savage the Smithsonian budget, the motivation for Heyman’s decision—which deleted the non-celebratory story of what happened to Native Americans in the 19th century—seemed obvious.
Melder retired shortly thereafter. Some of his colleagues argued that the whole project should be killed. NMAH managers decided instead to salvage what they could, but they still lacked the money to put even the tattered remnants on display.
They found a way, however. In February 1999, those remnants opened as a modest, identity-challenged show renamed "Communities in a Changing Nation." This was made possible by a few hundred thousand dollars in profit the museum had made—ironically—by doing the kind of lavish overview of American history it had failed to achieve with the century shows. Backed by two major media companies, put together by a team of more than 40 people, this multimillion-dollar, 50,000-square-foot extravaganza was called "The Smithsonian’s America" and it drew more than 1.3 million visitors in seven weeks.
There was just one little problem. The sponsoring companies were the broadcast network NHK and the daily newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, and in order to see "The Smithsonian’s America," you had to fly to Japan.
The $ 80 Million Question
"Any well-managed organization has to have a clear vision of where it wants to go. Now in my case, the vision couldn’t be clearer."
Secretary Small is talking straight into the camera on a video he made for Smithsonian managers in November 2000.
"It’s a vision that involves two M’s: modernization and money," he says, and he’s doing pretty well with the money part. "Just this last fiscal year we raised a total of $ 206 million from the private sector, which is up from about $ 40 million in 1996."
So his job is to get the cash. The managers’ jobs is to modernize. And what they should be doing right now is setting "blisteringly crisp goals" to define exactly what a modern museum would look like.
This is the $ 64,000 question, of course. Or the $ 80 million question, in American History’s case.
Eighty million dollars is the amount Ken Behring contracted to contribute to the museum in a gift agreement signed three months before Small’s video was made. That’s nearly 40 percent of the secretary’s $ 206 million total for the year. It made Behring the biggest donor in Smithsonian history and the linchpin in the NMAH modernization plan. And while Small doesn’t mention this, Behring’s goals for American History—blisteringly crisp or not—seem likely to outweigh anything those video-watching managers come up with on their own.
Behring is a round-shouldered, powerfully built man of 73 with a mobile face that’s part tough guy, part soft touch. One of his current passions is giving away wheelchairs through a foundation he started a couple of years ago; he likes to see the joy on the faces of the people who receive them. He didn’t get where he is by being a pushover, however. In the process of accumulating a fortune once estimated at half a billion dollars, he showed that he can play hardball with anyone.
He started out selling used cars, switched to real estate in time to catch Florida’s development boom and ended up building a whole city, Tamarac, whose mayor and city council he appointed. In the ‘70s, he shifted his operations to California and developed an upscale gated community called Blackhawk about 30 miles east of San Francisco; when environmentalists opposed the project, he sued them for libel. In 1988, he bought the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks; when the city wouldn’t make the stadium renovations he demanded, he threatened to move the team to Los Angeles. Then he sold it to a local owner for $ 100 million more than he’d paid.
Behring’s Smithsonian affiliation came about by accident. Somewhere along the way he’d started collecting classic automobiles. He built a nonprofit museum for them at Blackhawk, figuring it would be an amenity for the development, and he built another right next to it, which he filled with artifacts from the collections of the University of California at Berkeley. To get access to these, he made a deal that involved donating some of the cars to the university and in the process met Heyman, who was Berkeley’s chancellor at the time.
The partnership didn’t last. "They always had a couple of professors on our board who couldn’t understand a private museum, how we had to sell some things that we took in to pay operating costs," Behring says. "We would have cars donated to us and after three-four years we’d sell them and use them for operating expenses." But the Heyman connection continued, and when Behring was looking for a home for yet another of his collections—the trophies he’d acquired as a globe-trotting big-game hunter—he thought of his old friend, who’d moved east to run the Smithsonian in 1994.
The resulting $ 20 million gift to the National Museum of Natural History brought Behring his first taste of Smithsonian-related controversy. Natural History only wanted a few of his trophies, but there was a flurry of negative press when he offered the museum a recently shot Kara Tau argali sheep—a highly endangered species. Some at the museum also deplored the disruptive effects a new Behring-funded mammal hall would have on existing exhibitions and plans. Behring, for his part, got impatient with the pace at which the hall was coming together. When Small replaced Heyman and approached him to do more, "I said no, they were way behind schedule."
Small didn’t miss a beat. "Why don’t you take a look at American History," Behring remembers him saying. "Because that is one that really I would like to see something happen to."
So he did. Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s associate director at the time, remembers that he and Spencer Crew were asked to have dinner with Behring. They talked about the "blueprint" they had developed for the museum’s future, a planning document of modest ambition that tried to address its most obvious needs while building on what already had been accomplished. Bunch came away thinking "we had a donor who had bought in."
He was mistaken.
"We were on different wavelengths," Behring says, recalling the same dinner conversation. He’d already walked through the museum with Small, looked at exhibits like "Field to Factory" and "A More Perfect Union," and come out shaking his head. "If they wanted to keep this as a multiculture museum it would be fine," he explains, "because all the big exhibits were for one small segment of something that happened." But without drastic changes, it wouldn’t be a place he’d want to bring his grandchildren. Where were the nation’s great heroes? Where were Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln? "I wanted to see everything taken out and really do an American history museum."
Small was thinking the same way.
In the spring of 2000, just a few months into the job, he’d come up with the idea that, as a first step, the museum should do a major exhibition on America’s presidents. He promised to raise the money for it on the condition that it be finished sometime between the election in November and the inauguration in January. This would give NMAH eight months or so to get it up—about one fifth of the time Spencer Crew had told him that such a project would take—and leave no time, realistically, for curators to research the topic. No matter. There was plenty of information already out there on the presidents, wasn’t there?
"Larry doesn’t do ultimatums," Crew says, but the secretary’s message was clear: "This is something I want to do. And I want you to do it, but if you don’t want to do it, no threats, but it’s going to happen."
The museum came through with the exhibition and Small came through with the money. Among the donors were Cisco Systems, Chevy Chase Bank and the History Channel, which got to attach its logo to the videos. The biggest chunk of the roughly $ 10 million total cost—$ 4 million—came from Ken Behring. But he and Small were thinking much bigger than one show.
In addition to the money for "The American Presidency," Behring’s $ 80 million gift agreement, the details of which have not been made public by the Smithsonian, included the following provisions:
The museum was to construct two new exhibitions, both huge and expensive by the standards of previous shows. The first was to focus on the military’s role in defending freedom and democracy. The second was to honor "individuals who made great contributions to our country and who truly epitomize "the American spirit.’ " Behring was to approve the design of these shows before construction began.
Some money was to go toward planning the overall modernization of the museum, with the architect/designer to be chosen by Behring and the museum director.
The museum was to add the phrase "Behring Center" to its name and display it "prominently upon the National Mall and Constitution Avenue entrances."
The museum was to "maintain a close cooperative relationship" with Behring. Specifically, it was to value Behring’s "expertise and insight regarding the final redesign of the Museum’s exhibits in a manner that vividly presents the American experience."
Behring’s $ 80 million was to be doled out in 11 chunks over 11 years, and the payment schedule was to be modified if his projects were delayed.
Does all this add up to too much private control over a public museum? Behring doesn’t think so. "I only want to help," he says. But "this money did not come easy for me. I want to make sure it’s spent in a way that I think is beneficial to America."
What’s more, he knows that even $ 80 million won’t be enough to get the job done. Which is why, even before his gift was announced, he gave his good friends Cathy and Wayne Reynolds a call.
The Banquet of the Golden Plate
The rest, as they say, is history.
On May 9, 2001, Catherine Reynolds gave a luncheon party to announce a $ 38 million gift to the Smithsonian from the charitable foundation that bears her name. In attendance in the dining room at the Smithsonian Castle were U.S. senators, Supreme Court justices, Nobel Prize winners and a bevy of other notables including Coretta Scott King, skater Dorothy Hamill, actress Olivia de Havilland and AOL/Time Warner Chairman Steve Case. The U.S. Army Fife and Drum Corps played a fanfare. Patti Austin sang "God Bless America." Reynolds got a standing ovation.
The next day’s New York Times quoted her as saying that her foundation wanted "a hands-on role" in planning the inspirational exhibition on American achievers it was funding. "You don’t just write a check and say, "That solves the problem,’ " she said.
Spencer Crew had not had much input on the Reynolds gift. The negotiations were mainly between the donor and "the Castle," Crew says, using the standard shorthand for the central Smithsonian administration, though he says he was kept informed.
His staff had had no input at all.
Most people at NMAH were still in the dark about the specifics of Ken Behring’s gift agreement, though rumors were flying. Depressed by these and outraged by the way a donor’s name had been suddenly tacked onto the museum, they tried to cheer each other up with jokes and fantasy rescue schemes. Perhaps the singer Meat Loaf would give them $ 100 million so they could call the place the Meat Loaf Center. Perhaps they could chip in a buck apiece, win the lottery and buy an exhibition themselves. "Everything is totally upside down," one curator said at the time. "We can’t make any decisions about what we’re going to do. We have no way to plan. I don’t know if we’ll have a foot of space to do anything we want to do."
Still, the protest that followed surprised even those involved.
The direct approach to the regents represents an "astonishing" coming together of the curatorial staff, says Helena Wright, a graphic arts curator who coordinates the NMAH branch of the Smithsonian Congress of Scholars, the group that organized the complaint. "It’s "Network,’ it’s Peter Finch, it’s "We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.’ "
The congress, at least in theory, is open to everyone at the museum who does research, but "until recently you couldn’t have gotten a meeting of three or four together," says cultural history curator Rayna Green. "All of us have totally different opinions." Strange bedfellows or no, they managed to get a protest memo drafted and circulated for comment. It was eventually signed by all but two of the 36 curators. People below full curatorial rank or outside the curatorial department were not pressed to put their careers at risk by signing, though several dozen did anyway.
The memo essentially accused Small of privatizing NMAH. "Secretary Small has obligated the Museum to relationships with private individuals that breach established standards of museum practice and professional ethics," the curators argued, and they asked the regents to review the agreements with the donors lest the Smithsonian lose "the trust of the American people." They waited two days, then went public, reaping headlines like "Gifts That Can Warp a Museum" and "A Heritage for Sale."
Meanwhile, they were still trying to figure out where all this "achievers" stuff was coming from.
They learned from newspaper stories that Catherine Reynolds was a smart Northern Virginia businesswoman who’d joined a struggling nonprofit set up to make college loans to the middle class, turned it around, then spun off a for-profit company—which she controlled with two of the nonprofit’s other officers—to handle the bulk of the paperwork. This spinoff was later sold for a staggering but still-confidential sum, enough for Reynolds to endow her foundation with hundreds of millions of dollars.
They knew that the individuals to be featured in the Reynolds show were to be selected not by the show’s curators but by a special advisory committee. Ten of the committee’s members were to be nominated by the donor and five by the museum. Smithsonian administrators argued that because the regents had to approve the nominees, the institution retained control of the show’s content. Yet this assertion was as debatable—because "control" was so narrowly defined—as it was uncheckable: Requests to see the gift agreement were turned down, and one curator was told that "permission from Ms. Reynolds" was required before it could be generally released.
They noted that the American Academy of Achievement’s Web site listed Wayne Reynolds as its president and CEO, Catherine Reynolds as its vice chairman, and Ken Behring as both a vice president and a member of its "Board of Patrons."
But they didn’t know, at this point, that Wayne—not Catherine—was the Reynolds who first dreamed up a museum treatment of achievement. Or that he’d enlisted Behring’s help with it a decade before.
The Academy of Achievement, now headquartered in a town house on 16th Street NW, was founded by Wayne’s father, a former Life magazine photographer, in 1961. For the past 41 years, it has had one main purpose: to organize an annual gathering at which dozens of "superachievers" spend a long weekend mingling with several hundred promising high school students. The idea is that the students will go home inspired to achieve great things themselves. Each gathering culminates in the Banquet of the Golden Plate, at which the newly inducted members of the academy receive Golden Plate Awards. People who get invitations have often thought the academy was some kind of hoax, but it’s not, as is proved by the involvement of Colin Powell, Jimmy Carter, Steven Spielberg, a host of scientists and corporate executives, and—yes—Oprah Winfrey, Sam Donaldson and Martha Stewart.
Ken Behring first encountered the academy when he was awarded the Golden Plate in San Francisco in 1989. George Lucas, Ralph Lauren, Tom Brokaw, Dinah Shore and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were there. White House Chief of Staff John Sununu and Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher flew out on a military jet at a cost to the taxpayers of about $ 19,000. Junk bond king Michael Milken looked relaxed, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, despite his recent arraignment on fraud and racketeering charges. The Chronicle described the academy as "a tight mutual admiration society," backing up this observation with a quote from artificial heart pioneer William DeVries: "It is a social network. Like a club. Now I can call Chuck Yeager up, or Philip "Bo’ Knight (CEO of Nike) and they’ll return my calls, ask me out places."
"I was pretty enthused," Behring recalls. Before long, he was helping fund the academy, which, to judge from its patron lists, relies heavily on contributions from the businessmen among its honorees.
Meanwhile, he and Wayne Reynolds—Catherine wasn’t in the picture yet—had started to talk about putting up an achievement museum at Blackhawk. They commissioned some design work from Bob Rogers & Co., now BRC Imagination Arts. Rogers came up with a thick, colorfully illustrated "design manual" for "The Academy of Achievement: A Museum of Living History."
As the Rogers manual made clear, Reynolds and Behring were looking for something more proactive than the mere diffusion of knowledge. The aim of the Museum of Living History was "to unlock and release personal achievement potential in its Guests." It would use "drama, storytelling and showmanship to trigger a specific change of attitude." Heroes and role models would be grouped under five "Pillars of Achievement"—passion, vision, preparation, confidence and persistence—which, "placed on a base of Integrity, are what provides mankind with the ability to Achieve."
The project never got financed. Behring says he wasn’t interested in paying for it all himself. Bob Rogers says he introduced Reynolds to some people at Disney, but they weren’t interested either. Rogers also says he still owns the rights to the design. So it surprises him to hear that Wayne and Catherine Reynolds handed it out to people at the Smithsonian as a way to get their basic idea across.
"It was very, very hard for them to conceptualize it," Catherine Reynolds explains. "And I think a large part of that is, if you look at what they’re used to doing, it’s really 180 degrees different."
"A Donor Education Opportunity’
This, of course, is precisely what the protesting curators have been saying all along. The Reynolds’s inspirational vision, they argue, is 180 degrees different from the kind of history that they should be offering the public. And they despair that the man now running the Smithsonian can’t tell the two apart. "All this talk about bringing us into the 21st century," Bernard Finn says angrily, is "coming from somebody who hasn’t got the slightest idea of what the institution is all about."
Yet there are others who—out of necessity or by choice—have taken a more pragmatic view.
"There’s a process of education that goes on with any donor," says Steve Lubar, who chairs the museum’s history of technology division. "And that’s a long, slow, complicated process of showing them why, in fact, we have a lot of skills that work in exhibits, and what the museum’s about. And you have a discussion and you end up with something rather different than what they had in mind."
Lubar—a slender, bearded man who looks, as one friend points out, a little like a Russian monk—seems to have a role in just about every big project the museum is working on. He is one of the two curators who didn’t sign the memo to the regents, and he remains optimistic about the end results of the Behring and Reynolds gifts.
What they amount to, he repeats, is "a donor education problem—or a donor education opportunity, in management-speak." This nicely sums up the task confronted by American History’s management team and the staffers assigned to work on the achievers exhibition. For the past eight months, they’ve been in donor education mode—most notably at a pair of summer workshops designed to get Wayne and Catherine Reynolds on the same page with the people who would be creating their show.
A two-day discussion at the Smithsonian in June proved contentious, despite the fact that none of the protesting curators were among the institution’s representatives. The museum team had flown in a number of outside experts, but at the last minute they were told they couldn’t attend the first day’s session. No one said why, precisely, but it wasn’t hard to guess: The packet of material they’d been given had included the Rogers design manual, with its pillars of achievement scheme and its fulfill-your-potential exhortations. By the second day, the manual was no longer being openly discussed.
Donor education resumed in August at a Monday-to-Wednesday retreat held at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner. Both of the outside historians from the June workshop, who had been skeptical of the project, were replaced at this second meeting. Wayne and Catherine Reynolds were there, of course, along with two Castle administrators and a number of media developers, exhibit designers and other outside experts, including Van Romans, the director of cultural affairs at Walt Disney Imagineering. The workshop’s facilitator was Imagineering alumnus Bob Weis, who had worked with Romans on the ill-fated Disney’s America project in Prince William County a few years back.
Weis worked hard to jolt the academic types out of their intellectual shells. Once he sent them all out to the nearby Tysons II mall to grill young shoppers about what kind of people they admired; they got extra points for asking people under 18. The facilitator had "little mantras for us," one of the outside experts recalls, such as: "What do we want the visitor to feel."
What some of the Smithsonian participants were feeling, however, was stress. When talking on the record, they emphasize that the donors have come a long way toward understanding the museum’s point of view. Speaking on background, they can be more blunt about the uphill battle they’ve been fighting. "Tuesday was a nightmare," one says. "Wayne Reynolds kept saying: Well, I don’t like this. If you don’t do what we want, we’re going to take our money and leave."
University of Colorado historian Patricia Limerick says she enjoyed the retreat and thought highly of Wayne and Catherine Reynolds. She also reports that she sparked an explosion in the Reynolds camp when she mentioned that for some people, the American Dream had been "defaulted on." Scott Sandage, the other outside historian present, had to rescue her by pointing out that Martin Luther King Jr. had said the same thing.
Sandage is a young cultural historian from Carnegie Mellon University. He, too, says he had fun at the retreat, and he seriously considered an offer to help curate the achievers show, turning it down because he’s up for tenure and can’t afford the time. "They have so much money!" he says. "If people like me were in charge, we could do a kick-ass exhibit."
But as it is, he’s not sure it can deal with the kind of historical complexities he would want it to address.
Take the question of problematic types such as Michael Milken or Richard Nixon, whose achievements were great but ambiguous. Sandage thinks the "dark side" makes these stories more interesting. But when he floated the notion of including such people, using Milken and Nixon as examples, "it just didn’t go anywhere."
Or take the central question that any historian who works with biographical material must address: How much context is necessary to understand a person’s life story? This was left unresolved, both Sandage and Limerick say.
Sandage describes an hour-long conversation that focused on United Farm Workers organizer Cesar Chavez. "How would we deal with the fruit companies and growers?" he asked at one point. In other words, how would the show address the forces Chavez became an "achiever" by working against? "Nobody said, "This exhibit will not criticize big corporations.’ But neither was the question answered."
Never mind. By the morning of Day 3, the group was brainstorming an idea that had everybody pretty charged up. They started to talk about structuring the exhibition as a shopping mall, affectionately dubbed "the mall of achievement." Individual achievers and their stories would be grouped by retail categories: Ray Kroc of McDonald’s, for example, would be in the Food Court with Julia Child. Incoming visitors might be issued "smart cards" that would let them "buy" supplementary information on a limited number of achievers who especially interested them.
This was a welcome change from the tensions of the day before. "People were encouraged that Wayne and Cathy seemed excited about it," Sandage says.
"Let’s See an Upside-Down Corvair in That Exhibit!’
As donor education proceeded over the summer and fall, the question of who owns American History kept surfacing in other forms.
In July, there was another wave of "Smithsonian for Sale" headlines, kicked off by reports that the museum had agreed to put General Motors’ name on a major new transportation show in return for a $ 10 million contribution. Steve Lubar, who heads the team working on the show, replied by calling GM "the perfect donor," because it "writes the checks and lets us curate the exhibition." But many of his colleagues weren’t buying this. Some agreed that GM had had no influence on the script, but feared that the public would never believe it. A few argued that self-censorship was a problem, because Lubar and his team had to have known that the auto industry would be a funding target.
"Get real," says one skeptical curator. "Let’s see an upside-down Corvair in that exhibit! Let’s see a headline that says: "Unsafe at Any Speed.’ "
In September, Spencer Crew accepted a job running the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. Crew exited graciously without public criticism of Small. But he acknowledges feeling that his independence had been restricted. Small treats his museum directors like middle managers, Crew says. "That’s not the way we see ourselves, and it’s an adjustment all of us are struggling with."
Meanwhile, Ken Behring’s large footprints continued to show up all over the museum. In the spring, architect Doug Dahlin, who has worked with Behring for many years and who designed the Blackhawk Museum as well as Behring’s personal residence, began working on plans for redoing of the museum’s central core.
At the same time, as called for in Behring’s gift agreement, a blue-ribbon commission was appointed to generate more ideas on how NMAH should be rehabbed. The commission’s report could be out as early as next month, and its chairman, former Office of Management and Budget director and current Carlyle Group partner Richard Darman, doesn’t want to talk specifics in advance. But the commissioners quickly agreed, Darman said last fall, that the museum’s "number one problem" was that it’s incomprehensible. Part of their proposed solution, he said, will take the form of a new introductory exhibition big enough to cover the full sweep of American history.
But even assuming the money for it could be found—which Darman didn’t see as a problem—where would such an exhibition go? "Part of the issue for the blue-ribbon commission," as Steve Lubar put it, "is that in fact we have already promised and committed and signed contracts for almost all the real estate in the museum. And at some point they’ll realize that. They have a very small amount they can actually play with."
It was donor education time. Again.
Could Ken Behring be persuaded to support an introductory exhibition instead of the second one in his gift agreement—the one on "individuals who made great contributions"? If so, then everything would be fine. And he has been persuaded, Behring says. Marc Pachter, the acting director, has talked him into it, though some of his original idea may get grafted on.
This will require a small priority shift: In order to meet the production schedule in Behring’s gift agreement, which calls for one of his two shows to be finished in 2004 and the other in 2006, the museum will push back the introductory exhibition and move Behring’s military exhibition, now being called "The Price of Freedom," into the earlier slot.
Behring cares deeply about "The Price of Freedom," and he’s gotten a head start on figuring out how to do it. With his son David, who’s on the NMAH advisory board and has been active in his father’s projects, he has been visiting military museums around the country and overseas. Asked what they’ve seen that they liked, both Behrings promptly mention the Veterans Memorial Museum in Branson, Mo. Ken Behring particularly admired its heroic sculpture of 50 servicemen charging up a hill, "one actually from every state," and the way the museum displayed the names of all the Americans who’d been killed in combat from World War I on.
Those things are "probably what I’ll have the people at the Smithsonian look at," he says.
"Who’s in Charge?’
"We never even thought this was controversial," Wayne Reynolds is saying. "We were naive do-gooders, okay?"
It’s two months after the Ritz-Carlton workshop, five months after their gift was announced, and looking back, Catherine and Wayne Reynolds still don’t understand what the fuss is all about. Over salad, burgers and fries at Georgetown’s Four Seasons Hotel, they emphasize that they get along fine with the museum folks they’re actually working with. As for the ones they read about in the newspapers, the ones who clapped for Barbara Clark Smith at that meeting with Small . . .
Catherine takes the high road. "You know, change is hard for some people," she says.
Wayne is still so angry she sometimes has to put a hand on his arm to calm him down.
"Well, they’ve certainly done such a wonderful job of exhibiting all those light bulbs and drag racers and ceramic pots," he says. "And that for the first time maybe in the history of the museum they might actually have something that they’ll have lines of people wanting to see to inspire their kids to be great, to have input and make a difference in America, I think it just frustrates those curators and "scholars’—I use scholars in quotes, because I don’t know what their credentials are—who for 30 years have been there collecting movie posters and coins and ceramic pots. That there’s somebody who comes in there who really doesn’t have the emphasis on collecting things but on inspiring kids, it freaks them out."
What about the idea of putting living people in museums, the Reynoldses are asked, which seems to bother their critics so much? Take, for example, Larry Small, who happens to have received the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement last May. Small would never actually be in the exhibition, of course, but being a member of the academy makes him eligible under the ground rules the gift agreement spells out. His supporters think he’s doing great things for the Smithsonian. His opponents disagree. Wouldn’t it be jumping the gun to celebrate his achievements now?
"I think you’re looking at the wrong aspect of achievement," Wayne says, and goes on to sketch a portrait of the Larry Small he’d want the exhibition to evoke. It would be the awkward, too-tall youngster who nonetheless played goalie on his high school hockey team, who got into Brown despite his lack of connections, who tried his darnedest to turn himself into a flamenco guitar player, who became a financial whiz instead and who took on the Smithsonian job "when he could have retired and gone off and lived in Hawaii."
"Now that is the kind of story we want to tell," Wayne says. "Whether someone looks at him as a great secretary of the Smithsonian, that’s somebody else’s exhibit."
Okay. But the thorny question of Small’s performance in his job—as opposed to the inspirational tale of how he came to have it in the first place—is surely of some relevance if you’re concerned with the future of the institution he was hired to run. And it’s equally certain, when the judgment of history does come down on Larry Small, that he’ll be proved right about one thing:
It will all be about money and modernization.
Has Small recklessly pushed the privatization of a public institution, ceding the ownership of history to those rich enough to purchase the version they prefer? Or is the Smithsonian’s need for cash so great—with salaries, repairs and construction projects soaking up an ever-increasing percentage of its budget, and with the Bush administration now threatening to lop off millions more—that he truly had no choice? Is the Small/Behring/Reynolds model for modernization the only workable one? Or is the secretary in the process of destroying the Smithsonian in order to save it?
"I know that there will be tension going forward about the exhibits," Small says. But "the most important thing is that we agree that we can’t let these museums become dilapidated and run-down, that we can’t let these museums not be appealing to tomorrow’s population."
"Small says he wants to bring the institution into the 21st century, and we are not opposed to that," returns Barbara Clark Smith. "But the operative word there is "bring.’ You know, there’s an institution, you bring it with you. You bring the important stuff with you."
There is one more question, however, that even those who hate the direction Small is taking the Smithsonian must consider:
Is it fair to hold him accountable for the change?
Roger Kennedy, for one, doesn’t think so.
The former director is finally retired now—he ran the National Park Service for four years after leaving NMAH—and living in New Mexico. "I do not believe that the problem is Larry Small," he says. "The Congress has failed in its trusteeship to the Smithsonian for decades." The secretary could disappear tomorrow, but "unless the regents and the Congress learned something, it won’t make any difference."
But Kennedy doesn’t let it go at that. The real problem, he says, lies with all of us.
"We have, I think, a hasty, lazy culture that doesn’t want to listen to a complicated story, that doesn’t want to learn something that’s hard to learn, and wants results. And it celebrates successful short-term results." As a consequence, we lack respect both for the true complexity of the American past and for the skills of historians and museum curators, who must go through what Kennedy calls "the arduous process of becoming competent professionally" as interpreters of that past.
The Smithsonian Board of Regents will be meeting this week, for the first time since the American History curators filed their protest. It is unclear what, if anything, they will do to address it. Meanwhile, the team assigned to the Reynolds achievement exhibition is hard at work. Now called "The Spirit of America," it is scheduled to open in November 2004—which is tomorrow, by normal museum standards—and Peter Liebhold is the man at its helm.
Liebhold, who is a museum specialist (the rank just below curator) in the history of technology division, has never done a show like this before. His expertise is in photography and industrial history, he says, and among the things he mentions being proud of is a temporary exhibition, which he and several colleagues put together, called "Who’s in Charge? Workers and Managers in the United States." He has faith that the achievers show will turn out for the best.
Asked if he thinks it will prove worth the struggle—with colleagues, with the donors, with the concept itself—he pauses for a minute, then says, "Let me answer a slightly different question.
"This is the only exhibit I can ever remember in my entire life," Peter Liebhold says, "that was funded from the beginning."