Hijacking History: Culture, Politics, and Exhibition at the Smithsonian

A lecture by Kristin Hass, the fifth and final presentation in the Winter 2007 lecture series, Exhibiting Controversy: From Mapplethorpe to “Body Worlds” and Beyond.

Kristin Hass presents the National Museum of American History’s exhibit The Price of Freedom: Americans at War as a significant volley in the ongoing culture wars in the U.S. The exhibit marks a moment in which what can be said on the Mall in Washington DC is increasingly constrained and contained. Comparing the Price of Freedom to the exhibits that have long defined the kind of public history produced at the NMAH, such as A Nation of Nations, Field to Factory, and A More Perfect Union, Dr. Hass will argue that the cultural and institutional politics of the 21st century have redefined “history” and “public” at the museum and beyond.

In a close reading of the exhibition, Dr. Hass will discuss both the form of the exhibit and the rhetorical tropes that shape it. War, in the exhibit’s title and at every turn throughout the exhibit, is conflated with the noble pursuit of “freedom.” The exhibit is driven by a blind and sweeping narrative that connects the Indian Wars to the Vietnam War to the “conflict” in Iraq with an ill-defined idea – “Freedom.” The exhibit is able to do this because it holds a tight focus, literally and rhetorically, on the faces of the fighting men and women in these wars. The troubled logic of the exhibit reflects a dangerous conception of war as made sacred by the sacrifices of citizen soldiers. Dr. Hass will argue that the celebration of this logic at the NMAH marks a significant change in the making of public history in the U.S.

Kristin A. Hass is an Assistant Professor in the Program in American Culture at the University of Michigan. Dr. Hass was the Assistant Director of Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life from 1999 – 2004 and the Acting Director in 2002. She published her dissertation work as Carried to the Wall: American Memory and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1998 and continues to lecture, teach, and write about memory, publics, and memorialization. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies and has worked in a number of historical museums including the National Museum of American History, and The Henry Ford.