After Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is charged with monitoring the goings-on at the Smithsonian Institution, read an article painting the National Museum of American History as a hotbed of "political correctness," he decided to look for himself.
His tour, he told I. Michael Heyman, the Smithsonian's secretary, didn't make him happy.
"I saw quite a lot, and much of what I saw, frankly, I didn't like," said McConnell, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, at a review of the Smithsonian earlier this week. What he encountered, McConnell said, was part of a "drift to political correctness" in America. "I know it's going on in every campus in America, and it's not surprising that we find remnants of it in the Smithsonian," he said.
Over the years, accusations of political correctness--an excessive sensitivity to what might be considered prevailing political opinion--have been leveled at the Smithsonian, touching any number of science, art and history displays. The best-known debate erupted over the display of the Enola Gay and the accompanying interpretation of World War II and the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Scores of congressmen and veterans protested what they perceived as an anti-American take on the history of the bomb. The controversy prompted the Smithsonian to cancel the planned exhibit and put a series of checks and balances around the creation of future ones.
In his defense, Heyman reminded the Senate panel that the Smithsonian had learned many lessons from the Enola Gay debacle. "Individual curators were really completely in charge of whatever was to be shown," said Heyman. He said the new collaborative system includes alerting the chief managers if an exhibition might raise controversy.
McConnell's criticism centered on two exhibits: "American Encounters," a look at American Indians, Hispanics and white Americans in New Mexico; and "Communities in a Changing Nation: The Promise of 19th Century America." The New Mexico exhibit opened in 1992, and the "Communities" show opened last February.
"For example," McConnell said, "in the New Mexico Pueblo exhibit, references are made to 'invasive forms of Christianity.' Invasive! The characterization seems more apt for parasitic virus, a plague, than as a means of describing the evolution of Christianity in this country." He told Heyman the newer shows seemed to focus on "the dark side of capitalism," and that descriptions of immigrants' experiences in the "Communities" show downplayed the contribution of hard work and emphasized "luck, just luck."
His visit, he said, "was downright depressing."
McConnell said his review was prompted by an article in the June 7 Weekly Standard that said the museum "ignores or virtually ignores most of the major events in American history. This is a museum of multicultural grievance, which simply passes over any subject, individual or idea, no matter how vital to American history, that does not have to do with the oppression of some ethnic outgroup or disfavored gender."
Heyman, who plans to leave his post in the next few months, defended the exhibition on 19th-century America. But he didn't totally disagree with McConnell. "There are a couple others over there that I still have problems with, and the New Mexico one is one that I do have problems with. For a number of reasons, not only the reasons that you state," he said.
Officials at the Smithsonian said yesterday there are no plans at this time to change any of the labels or descriptions that McConnell and others had criticized.