Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Price of Freedom: Americans at War

The exhibit’s official webpage:

Exhibition Review by Carole Emberton:

Boehm, Scott. "The Post 9/11 Politics of Display: Patriotic Spectacles of U.S. "Freedom"" An Abstract of a Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association, Oct 12,2006

In The Battle Over ‘The West As America,’ Alan Wallach argues that a museum traditionally has a “single, authoritative voice” (99). Likewise, in The National Museum of the American Indian as Cultural Sovereignty, Amanda J. Cobb agrees that an American museum is “an institutional tool of culture” that is “underpinned by Western epistemologies, systems of classification, and ideological assumptions” (487-488). One current museum exhibit that dramatically portrays these arguments is The Price of Freedom: Americans at War in the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian.

The Price of Freedom displays guns, military uniforms, and artifacts from the American wars, from the Revolutionary War all the way to the current conflicts in the Middle East. Although the museum’s official site admits that Americans have gone to war not only to “win their independence” and “define their freedoms,” but also to “expand their national boundaries” and “defend their interests around the globe,” the exhibit’s title masks America’s imperialistic and capitalist manifestations of empire. According to Carole Emberton, “The exhibit's title suggests an interpretive stance that assumes freedom is, and has always been, the objective of American military engagements. But freedom is a problematic term, and in failing to recognize how the meaning of freedom has been contested historically, the exhibit takes the viewer on a whiggish stroll through American social and political history, conveniently indulging any desire he or she might have to rely on a facile belief in the mythic march of progress and democratic expansion. Thus, “Slavery, Indian removal, imperialistic endeavors in Asia and Latin America, strikebreaking at home, internment camps, all these less-than-heroic war stories become muted in the glowing light of ‘brotherhood,’ ‘duty,’ and ‘sacrifice’” (Emberton). Furthermore, by including artifacts from the World Trade Center, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the museum exhibit actively engages in propoganda, “sheltering [the current wars] under the protective umbrella of freedom and sacrifice here placed over earlier wars” (Emberton).

According to Wallach, museums’ authority normally serves “various elite, corporate, and government interests” (90). Likewise, Scott Boehm agrees that museum histories are “underwritten by private donors, providing evidence for how post-culture wars neoliberal economic policies—which cut federal funding for cultural institutions—conveniently coalesce with neoconservative visions of the U.S. role on the global stage. The Price of Freedom was made possible by the donation of the wealthy real estate developer Kenneth A. Behring, who explicitly wanted the exhibit to highlight “the history and contributions of the American people (but focusing primarily on the military’s role) in preserving and protecting freedom and democracy” (“At American History, a Battle Brews,” Washington Post, Nov. 7, 2004).

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