When Business Writes History

unnamedI expected another benign array of American dates, names and artifacts when the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History opened its new Innovation Wing last week.

Zippier display cases, sure. A greater emphasis on interactive materials, well, that’s just what the times demand to wrest kids from staring at their phones. But a wholesale change in how the nation’s story is told? That was unexpected to me.

And yet, at a press preview for the opening of “American Enterprise,” a survey of U.S. business history that is part of new exhibits in the Innovation Wing, I was struck by what seemed a starkly different official view of American work and wealth (though hardly anyone else seemed to be).

The story I had been accustomed to hearing is one of struggle, with its roots in slavery and eradicating Native peoples from their land, exploiting workers who had to bond to fight for the most basic things like eight hour days, overtime, decent wages and a ban on child labor and discrimination.

Here, slavery is depicted as a way to make millions, the land grab as proof of crafty superiority over Indian tribes, where labor is seen as greedy, but the early barons? Not so much. And supply siders are the smartest of all.

When I asked curators about how certain aspects of history were handled, they seemed surprised I took issue. When I asked where, for example, was mention of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 145 and led to reform of American sweatshops in 1911, they said they just didn’t have any good artifacts from that (all burned up, perhaps).

Curators did say, over and over, that the businesses who donated generously to fund the new permanent exhibit did not influence its content. But you have to wonder, when Monsanto is one of the chief funders, why their development of GMOs is described as a boon to mankind but not something that millions of others continue rail against, trying to at the least have products labeled as having been genetically modified despite aggressive campaigning against it by, you guessed it, Monsanto.

If Monsanto is in town spending millions or more on lobbying in Washington, why not spend a few million more to help influence visitors to the Smithsonian? Therefore, let’s hear it for Roundup.

I asked the main curator about these concerns and some of them got into an article I wrote for the Smithsonian Magazine online including the entire description for slavery presented:

Slavery created enormous profits for not only the Southern planters and slave traders, but also for Northern cotton-mill owners and investors. Nearly one million enslaved Americans defined as property, were wrenched from their upper South families. Some bought their freedom, more fought back by running away or even taking their own lives.

Slaves were sold off the plantation for later auction. In this scene, set in the upper South, the parents had no working when traders came for their son.

And the part about slavery being the evil, a moral abomination, the country’s original sin? Why is that missing?

“We actually think the fact that many museums present slavery as a moral evil in some ways misses the point,” said David Allison, the museum’s associate director for curatorial affairs.  “Slaves were mistreated, but by and large they were seen as great investments, especially as the cotton grew…they took insurance policies on them. They were treated as [a] means to make money.

“From our perspective it’s a business history exhibition, telling the story that slavery was big business—not just in the South but across the country—which is a different story and in some ways I really think a more riveting and troublesome story.”

It may also explain why a display wall of otherwise familiar industrialists like the Astors or the Vanderbilts, there is one James De Wolfe, “a notorious slave trader and a U.S. senator from Rhode Island” whose “commerce in slaves, along with his cotton manufacturing interests, brought him great wealth and political prominence.”

But not, say, a certain place in hell.

Why is he among the other industrialists on what looks to be a business hall of fame?

“Our goal is not to pick winners and losers, or heroes and villains,” Allison said. “I mean, we have Ponzi on the wall.”

And there he is—Charles Ponzi, whose cheating ways made him the namesake for the kind of scheme that bilked thousands of investors of billions of dollars, in the manner of Bernard Madoff.

Madoff is not part of the exhibit, but Michael Milken gets a little feature in the accompanying “American Enterprise” book for his junk bond empire without  mention of his notorious indictment for racketeering and securities fraud.

“Their stories are part of the American framework,” Allison says of Ponzi and De Wolfe. “We’ve become judgmental looking back. But I don’t know if it’s our job to condemn or raise up people, but to show people that shaped our past and to engage you in the debate.”

I didn’t want to belabor the issues for Smithsonian Magazine. But I had to ask about the description of the Western land grab that began:

Indians lost their lands by treaties, wars or failed agreements.

Which makes it sound like they were not, say, systematically wiped out.

“Indians were not systematically wiped out in America!” the Smithsonian curator declared. “That’s simply not true. The United States at a certain point had power to decimate and kill all the Indians if they wanted to. Some people thought they should do that. We did not do that.

“Now unquestionably they were unfairly treated, we made unfair treaties with them especially during the Western period,” he said. But, he added, “we wouldn’t have made treaties with Indians if we wanted to have genocide against them. We would have done what Hitler did in Europe and just kill people. America didn’t do that. There were certainly incidents where there were massacres but overall as national policy, genocide was not a policy against Native Americans.

But, I persisted, “failed agreements” seemed to bely the fraudulent nature of nearly every treaty signed with the U.S. government; the Smithsonian’s own Museum of the American Indian might take issue with their offhand descriptions of how their vast lands were lost.

“We certainly don’t make the claim that native Americans were fairly treated,” Allison said. “But there were treaties with them. And I think some people overstate the case when they say we just committed genocide against native Americans. It’s simply not true.”

Elsewhere, the small labor display, which comes under the headline “Labor Wants More” (a phrase repeated three times in an exhibit where “greed” is scarcely attributed to the gilded age barons) is one of the few places where worker uprisings are mentioned, though a number of labor leaders are featured in videos buried in one of the interactive kiosks.

And at the end, to emphasize the conservative, pro-business tone, a napkin showing the Laffer Curve, as it was drawn in a D.C. restaurant by former OMB chief economist Arthur Laffer for a pair of Ford administration Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, showing how high taxes curbs economic growth, is preserved under glass like a kind of Republican Shroud of Turin.

Nearby, the hallowed briefcase of supply sider Milton Friedman (For those fighting globalization there is a goofy cardboard turtle costume from a Seattle rally, as if to show their reptilian view of modern commerce).

“The thing about the Laffer napkin is that people that know about the Reagan Administration and Laffer’s ideas and how it affected Reagan obviously it as a big part of his policies when he ran the government,” Allison said. “To be able to show people who have heard about Laffer hat he actually drew this curve on it, in a restaurant, in Washington, and we have it at the Smithsonian. That’s a great Smithsonian story.”

To display it under glass, Allison said, “is not saying we agree or disagree with his perspective. It’s just a great object to have. But certainly the theme of deregulation in the 80s and 90s is a huge part of national policy. It’s a change. And we deal with the consumer period just before that, the growth of regulation we have a major section about how the government was trying to regulate industry and there were a lot of people that responded to that and didn’t support it, and Reagan in particular was saying government’s not the answer, it’s the problem.

“I don’t know if you agree with that or not, but it’s a part of who the government was. We’re not advocating that, we’re just saying that was the prevailing theory in that time period. So we have some interesting objects that represent the people who were engaged in that. But we still can tell the story of debating world trade and other things in that section. It’s as much a part of policy as deregulation was in an earlier time.”

Go see it and decide for yourself at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History as part of the permanent display in the Innovation Wing.


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