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Smithsonian Perspectives

Exhibits at the National Museum of American History commemorate our diverse World War II experiences

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A number of exhibitions commemorating aspects of World War II are now on view at the National Museum of American History. I would like to devote this month's Perspectives to three of them because each evidences the Smithsonian's concern for meaningful events in our national history and because each one is entirely different from the others in its approach. (As readers of this column know, I have been seeking to understand the proper range and nature of Smithsonian exhibitions.)

One of the exhibits — "GI World War II: The American Soldier Experience" — consists of more than 400 objects and graphics, from rifles and canteens to uniforms and photographic portraits, even a portion of a World War II barracks with cots covered by tight blankets and with footlockers at their base. Dog tags, campaign ribbons, medals, bayonets and other World War II artifacts are displayed closely together and in profusion. Accompanying text provides some background.

This is a step away from the more traditional kinds of military exhibits that might show numerous uniforms, rifles and the like but are devoid of context. This exhibit evokes memories for those who served in the military during the time. But it tells no stories, and it is hard for those who were not in the Armed Forces to relate intimately to the objects. They are interesting but not deeply meaningful.

Contrasting with this exhibition is "World War II: Sharing Memories." This is a collection of everyday objects used by people at war and on the home front, such as a Jeep, posters, books and a host of other ordinary objects. The staff of the museum even shared typical, everyday items from their own personal collections. Popular music from the era plays in the background. There are paintings of military scenes commissioned by the Armed Forces during the war and books of photo-graphs of contemporary scenes. The objective is to stimulate memories through objects and images that connect viewers with their own remembrances of the times. It seems to work well. Visitors are asked to write down their memories, and literally volumes are being produced. Some remember their own participation. Others write — often as short stories — about the men and women in their families who served, and those who waited and worked. In addition, there are weekly lectures on related World War II topics.

"World War II: Sharing Memories" is designed to accomplish a particular purpose. The curators wanted people to participate by remembering personal and family involvements, and they selected objects and exhibited them in a manner so as to be as evocative as possible. There is a home flag with a blue star for a loved one in service (a gold star would have been for one who died), flags that were awarded to factories for exemplary production and labor-management cooperation, quotations from famed WWII cartoonist Bill Mauldin about what it was like at the front, and others. But there is no definite story line in the exhibit, and there is only a little commentary on what seems unbelievable now — most prominently, racially segregated military units.

This takes me to a third exhibition — one that has been on display for a good many years: "A More Perfect Union: Japanese-Americans and the United States Constitution." Here you have an exhibition that tells a big story — the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the impact of the internment on them, the valor and success of the Japanese-American military units in the European theater, and the eventual official recognition by the U.S. Government that what had occurred was wrong and that reparations were deserved.

Unlike the others, this exhibition is based on a central idea that integrates objects and text: the inconsistency of the treatment of Japanese-Americans with the basic ideology of the United States, as expressed in the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Obviously, this kind of exhibition can be quite controversial. Many observers do not interpret the events in the same way as do the curators. Nevertheless, it is stirring and makes us all confront the distance that sometimes exists between behavior and ideals. While I understand that some visitors may disagree with some of the themes, occasional exhibits of this kind are justified in an institution dedicated to the diffusion of knowledge. One can look at the gap between performance and promise negatively — as a failure of our system of governance. But I prefer to look at the gap as an ongoing positive challenge — a challenge that often is met by our self-correcting and flexible system.

By I. Michael Heyman

About I. Michael Heyman
I. Michael Heyman

I. Michael Heyman served as the secretary of the Smithonian Institution from 1994 to 1999.

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