Rare is the public memorial or museum free of political, artistic and/or financial controversy. Any sculpture honoring the New York firemen at Ground Zero was asking for it.
The design for a bronze memorial, to be erected in front of the fire department in Brooklyn, was based on a photograph of three fireman raising an American flag above the ashes and rubble of the twin towers. But the photograph was fatally flawed for our politically correct times: All three firemen were white men. No problem: The design was altered to depict one black man, one Hispanic man and one white man.
Petitions and protests followed, railing against "political correctness," and the design went back to the drawing board.
The Vietnam memorial, eloquent with the names of those who died in that war carved into the dark sunken stone, was the stuff of bitter controversy. Critics decried the design as a memorial to remorse and self-pity, and called it a "hole in the ground." The Air and Space Museum proposed an exhibit on World War II with an emphasis on the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, leaving the impression that the war in the Pacific was probably America's fault. Veterans of the war complained so loud the exhibit was revised.
Many voices were raised against Joe Hirshhorn's donation of his modern art collection to the nation because the gift carried the stipulation that the museum to be built to house it be named after the gift-giver. The art patron won, but not without a fight. There was precedent. James Smithson, an Englishman, left his fortune to the U.S. government for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge." With such largesse, an act of Congress established the Smithsonian Institution in 1847.
Public museums and memorials are always reflective of money and cultural attitudes. The figure atop the Capitol in Washington, often described by visitors as an American Indian, is actually a woman of indeterminate ethnic origin wrapped in elaborate drapery to avoid giving offense to puritanical sensitivities. The Liberty Cap on her head was originally a copy of the one worn by slaves in ancient Rome, but the headpiece was changed after Secretary of War Jefferson Davis complained that it was a not-so-subtle protest against slavery.
"It's always something," as Gilda Radner's Rosanne Rosannadanna used to say in her "Saturday Night Live" skits.
The current "something" in Washington, a city of art as well as politics, is a debate over how history should be depicted in national museums, specifically the National Museum of American History. It's become a dusty, musty relic of an earlier time. But the planned update may turn out to be worse than how history is portrayed now.
Over the past two decades, the museum has been plagued by warped political perceptions. To celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution, for example, major space was devoted to depicting the internment of the Japanese-Americans in World War II. The curators definitely weren't playing "Accentuate the Positive," a popular song of those war years.
In "Science in American Life," an exhibition that opened in 1994, the museum chose to feature a "Family Fallout Shelter." The whole idea was denounced both by the advisory board and the American Chemical Society, which was offering $5.3 million to sponsor it. "Too negative, too negative, too negative," one curator told The Washington Post.
Between the Scylla of political ennui and the Charybdis of a shrinking purse flows the commercialization of history. Like corporations that pay to put their names on public stadiums and movie producers who sell the placing of commercial products in their movies, the Museum of American History has been accused of auctioning history to high bidders.
Last year the checks hit the fan at the Smithsonian. Kenneth Behring gave $80 million and Catherine Reynolds gave $38 million to the museum, hinting broadly that they wanted to participate in the decisions for determining who and what is exhibited there. A planned permanent exhibition called "hall of achievers" was rumored to include Oprah Winfrey, Sam Donaldson and Martha Stewart, who were especially admired by Catherine Reynolds because they "inspired" her.
Fortunately, controversy often awakens a sleeping public and exhibitions can be carefully scrutinized lest they celebrate kitsch rather than historical truth. "It is ... a peculiarly noble work rescuing from oblivion those who deserve immortality," wrote Pliny the Younger, the Roman writer who lived more than 2,000 years ago. By extending the renown of those who deserve historical fame, we advance our national achievements.
But we have to be careful that we don't sell renown as tribute to those who can afford to pay for it. The greening of museums and memorials should reflect the growth of ideas rather than the treasury of personal fortunes. The imprint of history should not bear the grimy fingerprints of those who donate the money.