The Smithsonian's Museum of American History has gone into labor. A pair of new exhibits, a firm series and three concerts will explore the toils, troubles and triumphs of the women and men upon whose dexterity and sweat the nation has always depended.
The package is impressive and seems oddly unSmithsonian. "It is certainly a departure for us," said Gary Kulik, vice chairman of the museum's department of social and national history. "The Smithsonian, and American historians generally, have been biased toward the 'great man' theory of history. We have only recently begun to thoroughly examine the lives of ordinary people for the insight they give into social movements and historical trends."
In historiography the tail wags the dog; when we change our minds about who we are and where we've been, our historians find new truths to suit us. "The civil-rights movement led to the reexamination of slavery from the underside," Kulik said, "and the women's movement has further stimulated adoption of the new techniques."
The museum's labor package will be unwrapped in four stages: "Images of Labor," a gallery of 32 artworks interpreting famous quotations, opens Friday; "The Union Makes Us Strong," 24 documentary and/or expository films, begins Saturday; "Perfect in Her Place: Women at Work in Industiral America" opens next Wednesday; and the concert series kicks off with "labor troubador" Joe Glazer on July 26.
"Images of Labor" was commissioned by District 1199 of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees under its "Bread and Roses" cultural program, which echoes the plea of poet James Oppenheim: Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses !
There was resistance within the Institution to adopting the exhibit whole, "just acting as a gallery," as Kulik put it, but happily art won out over custom, for the paintings, drawings, collages and sculptures are of a far higher order than the poster art that might be expected from a special-interest group. A whole college of schools is represented, and a majority of the works could stand without titles or explanations. Collectively they are overwhelming, or would be if better displayed than along a busy corridor.
After a month, "Images" will begin a two-year national tour.
"Perfect in Her Place" compresses a lot of history and not a little social commentary into a very small space on the first floor.
Curator Deborah Warner, although somewhat constricted by the conventions of the Smithsonian's text style, has produced a trenchant and occasionally vivid sampling of the exploitation that has been the female experience in industrial America.
While American women still make less than men by a ratio of 5:3, "baby" has come a long way: In the mid-19th century, women in Waltham, Massachusetts, were paid $8 a week to shape watch jewels -- and to replace four men who had been paid $25 apiece. At the bottom of this dismal scale was the black woman, for whom Sojourner Truth said it all:
Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted and fathered into barns, and no man could head me -- ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man -- when I could get it -- and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most of 'em sold into slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me -- and ain't I a woman ?
Exhibit designer Deborah Bretzfelder, having principally black-and-white lithographs to work with, cunningly chose tones of gray for the mountings to make the illustrations seem brighter. Unbleached muslin backgrounds subliminally evoke the plain rought uniforms of working women, and purple signatures and borders suggest the femininity the reality of the workplace denied.
The exhibit may be most powerful in what it leaves out; it covers only the last century and the opening years of this one, but many a working woman will find the conditions it describes not essentially different from how she makes her living now.
IMAGES OF LABOR -- through August 21, and; PERFECT IN HER PLACE -- July 22 through January 24, both at the National Museum of American History; THE MUSIC: The labor concerts will be from 3 to 4 on Sundays in the "Images of Labor" exhibition area on the second floor of the National Museum of American History: July 26 -- "Labor troubador" Joe Glazer. AUGUST 9 -- Steve Jones with songs of agricultural, service and hospital employees. AUGUST 16 -- Hazel Dickens with "hard-hitting songs of hard-hit people."