Controversy, thy name be Smithsonian

Johns Hopkins University Press Blog

Guest post by Robert C. Post

Who Owns America's Past? $20.97 (reg. $29.95)

The Smithsonian Institution is currently wrapped in controversy involving an exhibit at its National Museum of African Art, Conversations: African and African Amercian Artworks in Dialogue. Nobody doubts the exhibit’s noble purpose, displaying art with “the power to inspire.” But one-third of the works are from the collection of Bill Cosby and his wife Camille, and the Cosbys donated $716,000 “to assist with the cost.” Moreover, the exhibit is partly about Cosby himself, about his fame, his geniality. Near a display of quilts there is a quote about these quilts telling a story “of life, of memory, of family relationships.” To many people steeped in the 24-hour news cycle, this seems beyond irony.

But we must remember that the Smithsonian Institution was born 170 years ago amid controversy and no little irony. When the bequest of an eccentric Englishman, James Smithson, arrived in…

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