The Smithsonian has long carried a special virtuous sheen in the American imagination. It feels like one of our country’s few genuine projects for the common good. It was established out of the bequest of James Smithson, a wealthy British scientist who gave his estate to the young American nation in order to create an institution “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” In 1846, it became a trust administered by a special Board of Regents to be approved by the United States Congress. No other museum in the country has such an arrangement. And because its buildings line the National Mall, and admission is free, it has been regarded as something like the American people’s own special repository for knowledge. The Smithsonian helps define how America sees itself, and carries a weighty sense of dignity and neutrality.
It’s strange, then, that in certain parts of the Smithsonian, you may feel rather as if you’ve walked into the middle of a corporate sales pitch. When I visited the Smithsonian American History museum in December, for example, a “Mars Chocolate Demonstration” entitled “From Bean To Bar” was set up in a vestibule between exhibits. A half dozen people stood at a long table, showing how different stages in chocolate production worked. I had assumed they were docents until I noticed that most wore shirts embroidered with the Mars logo.
The lead presenter passed around a silicone model of a cacao pod, describing the process of growing the trees, explaining the role of hot chocolate in the American revolution, and telling us that the Aztecs used to consume only the white pulp that grows around the beans in the cacao pods. He informed us that nobody knows how the Aztecs discovered that the beans themselves had value, but offered a theory that they left the discarded beans by the fire, where they burned fragrantly. Then he passed around a bowl of roasted cacao nibs.
Later, I asked him whether he was a historian.
“I make M&Ms for a living,” he told me.
The demonstration was sponsored, I learned, by American Heritage Chocolate, a sub-brand of Mars that is sold exclusively at museums and historical sites. It is hard to critique a candy-making exhibit without seeming like a killjoy. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that the Mars promotional demonstration has somewhat limited relevance to the core mission of the Museum of American History, or that having chocolatiers speculate about Aztec history is possibly below the expected Smithsonian standard of rigor. Having a chocolate-making demonstration is certainly a crowd-pleaser, and we did get free hot chocolate samples. But one cannot escape the suspicion that Mars, Inc. is using the Smithsonian to advertise chocolate to kids.
The chocolate exhibit is far from an isolated phenomenon. From the moment one arrives at the American History museum, in fact, its corporate sponsorship is evident. Much of the first floor is dedicated to the theme of “American Enterprise,” including the elaborate “Mars Hall of American Business.” The Hall of Business, sponsored by Monsanto, Altria (a.k.a. Philip Morris), S.C. Johnson, Intel, 3M, the United Soybean Board, and of course, Mars (among others) is intended to “convey the drama, breadth and diversity of America’s business heritage along with its benefits, failures and unanticipated consequences.” This kind of euphemistic, understated apologia is typical of the entire exhibition. American business may have experienced occasional “failures” and “unintended consequences,” but it has certainly never been guilty of, you know, “crimes,” or “wrongdoing.”
The Hall builds an entire history of the U.S. economy around “themes of opportunity, innovation, competition and the search for common good in the American marketplace.” (Note: not the search for profit.) When Mars first announced its multi-million dollar donation to build the Hall, the company’s president declared its intention to “provide examples of how U.S. companies and individuals have fundamentally, and positively, changed the way the world works and be a source of inspiration for future generations of business leaders and entrepreneurs.” The Smithsonian, in turn, promised to “provide visitors with a hands-on understanding of innovation, markets and business practice,” with activities including “choosing marketing campaigns for target audiences [and] making or losing simulated money through ‘trades.’” The museum also promised “larger personal and family stories featuring biographies of innovators and entrepreneurs.” (Note: not day laborers and shoe shiners.)
Thus, there was no pretense whatsoever that the exhibit would be neutral on the question of whether American capitalism had been good for the world. This was to be a celebratory showcase of business’s positive achievements. Innovation, growth, and entrepreneurship were the watchwords; anyone expecting a Hall of American Labor Struggles, about the grinding exploitation and violence perpetrated on American workers (from slavery to the Ludlow Massacre to contemporary Florida orange groves) was in for disappointment. The sponsorship of Altria and Monsanto ensures that the history of American economic development is the history of cotton gins and Cadillacs, rather than of child laborers in Kazakhstan producing Philip Morris cigarettes, or Monsanto selling Agent Orange to the Department of Defense.
The pro-business perspective of the exhibition is present in every aspect of its carefully euphemistic language. Here is how the Hall’s text summarizes the “Merchant Era” that lasted from the 1770s to the 1850s:
“During the Merchant Era, many people profited from abundant land and resources—mining gold, acquiring territory, and establishing factories. A market revolution disrupted everyday life and ways of doing businesses. Indian nations struggled with loss of their land, while other Americans faced changes in work and managing debt.”
Of course, the period under discussion is the peak American era of massacre, indenture, conquest, and slavery. But in the Smithsonian’s description, these are incidental and unfortunate side-developments, rather than the entire foundation of the economic successes of the “Merchant Era.” And to the extent these unsavory details intrude at all, they are sanitized with calculated synonyms and painstakingly exculpatory grammatical constructions. Land is not “stolen,” it is “acquired.” Indian nations are not exiled, displaced, and killed; instead they “struggle with loss,” as if this were some sort of private bereavement, rather than a deliberate campaign of despoliation and extermination waged by enterprising settlers, speculators, and government agencies.
The subsequent “Corporate Era” from the 1860s to the 1930s—the age of Chinese railroad work, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, robber barons, Pinkertons, the re-enslavement of blacks through Jim Crow prison labor, and the massacre of striking miners—is characterized in a similarly upbeat manner.
“During the Corporate Era, industrialization, national competition, and business expansion brought widespread economic growth and social change to the United States. This period also saw turbulence in the form of widespread immigration, financial panics, and confrontations between labor and management.”
The central characteristic of the era, then, is not the long hours worked by 12-year-olds in mines and textile mills. It is not the burning alive of 146 Jewish and Italian garment workers locked by their employers inside a high-rise sweatshop, nor is it the opulence of the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, or Astors. Rather, it is a time of game-show values like “expansion” and “competition.” Corporations are bringers of Growth and Change, while immigrants and unions are lumped in with financial panics as bringers of Turbulence. It’s an era that “saw” confrontation, in some kind of relaxed, desultory, impersonal manner, not an era in which incredibly rich people did their absolute utmost (using legal and extra-legal methods) to keep incredibly poor people working long hours in unsafe conditions.
The story expanded upon in the exhibition’s companion book, American Enterprise: A History of Business, which is largely edited and written by Smithsonian historians, but also features chapters from such acclaimed historical scholars as Bill Ford of the Ford Motor Company, ex-Chevron VP Patricia Woertz, and S.C. Johnson CEO Fisk Johnson (as well as a single token labor organizer). These days, corporations don’t just sponsor the history; they even help write it.
None of this is to say that the Hall ignores the existence of slavery, labor struggles, and immigrant workers. The Smithsonian is keen to present the story of the “turbulence” that ran through American history, which includes a sympathetic contextualization of the lives of working people. But fundamentally, the “Hall of Business” inherently treats American economic history as the story of businessmen rather than workers. It is a story of triumph, in which the railroads go west, the canals are dug, and exciting new kinds of marketing and advertising techniques are developed. The themes that predominate are precisely the themes emphasized by the Mars executive: America’s entrepreneurs and innovators are the heroes who built our country. Thus, the bulk of our economic history has been a story of triumph, rather than one of colonization and immiseration.
Elsewhere in the Museum of American History, the tone is similar. You will find exhibitions on “The Value of Money,” “Stories on Money,” and “The Price of Freedom.” Krispy Kreme, Nordic Ware, and Williams Sonoma all co-sponsor “Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000.” (To the “Food” exhibit’s credit, it does mention the United Farm Workers and point out that “many [have] raised questions about the long-term effects of mass production and consumerism, especially on the environment, health and workers.” These questions evidently have not caused the curators of the Smithsonian to lose any sleep, but it is considerate of them to acknowledge their existence.)
In the museum’s east wing, the General Motors Hall of Transportation houses an exhibit titled “America on the Move,” made possible with generous support from General Motors Corporation (along with AAA, State Farm Companies Foundation, the U.S. Department of Transportation, ExxonMobil, and others). A placard documents the history of public transit:
“In the early 1900s, streetcars and electric interurban systems helped fill the nation’s transportation needs. But over the next few decades the limitations of streetcar systems, government and corporate policies and actions, consumer choice, and the development of alternatives—especially the bus and car—helped make trolleys obsolete… Most important [sic], Americans chose another alternative—the automobile. The car became the commuter option of choice for those who could afford it, and more people could do so. In Washington, D.C., the last streetcar ran in 1962. In 2000, a public-transit authority runs an expansive bus service and operates a subway system. But as in most cities, the majority of D.C.-area residents prefer to drive alone in their cars from their homes to their workplaces.”
The language repeatedly emphasizes consumer choice as particularly important. Residents “prefer to drive alone” and the car became “the option of choice.” But consumers can only choose among the options that are provided to them. The implication here is that people don’t want good public transit, they want GM cars. We are thus led to infer that the people in Los Angeles, for example, prefer to sit in two hours of traffic to and from work, rather than be caught riding something as “obsolete” and déclassé as a trolley. But do they really have a choice? Driving may be preferable to the other existing transport options, but is really preferable to a functional, far-reaching, and efficient public transit system? By emphasizing that the sovereign consumer has already made up her mind, the exhibit rationalizes the status quo. There is no indication in these descriptions that the world we live in, and the options that are available to us, could possibly have looked otherwise than they do. Though the Smithsonian exhibits pay lip-service to individual autonomy, the visitor nonetheless gets the sense that the historical development of American business was as inexorable and irreversible as the formation of our mountains and coastlines. We can explain the forces that brought them into being, but we don’t think of these forces as having any kind of agency, or moral responsibility. Economic “production” continues to be a black box of hidden suffering, while the entrepreneurial spirit is lionized as the highest form of civic virtue.
One commonly hears arguments for why funding doesn’t influence content. It was, after all, Hillary Clinton’s claim regarding her considerable Goldman Sachs speaking fees. It’s also the claim made by corporate-funded researchers. And in theory, in the absence of direct quid-pro-quo corruption, the funder could just hand over the cash and leave the institution/candidate/researcher with total freedom to say and do as they please.
But wandering through the Smithsonian Museum of American History, it’s hard to believe that this can be entirely true in practice. Throughout, one gets the vague sensation that the information being consumed has been subtly molded by its sponsors. The Smithsonian has certainly been plagued in the past by sponsorship-related controversies. In 2003, photographer Subhankar Banerjee debuted his exhibit “Seasons of Life and Land” at the American Museum of Natural History. His photos — of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska — were abruptly moved to the museum’s basement after Senator Barbara Boxer brought a photo of a polar bear from the exhibit to the Senate floor to bolster an argument against arctic drilling. The same museum paid for its Hall of Human Origins with a $15 million grant from David Koch. The exhibit strongly implies that climate change may not be man-made, and reminds visitors that the earth is cooler now than it was ten thousand years ago. According to the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, a game at the exhibit suggested that humans could simply evolve to deal with climate change by building “underground cities” and developing “short, compact bodies” or “curved spines,” so that “moving around in tight spaces will be no problem.”
In some cases, corporate influence on informational presentation is direct and obvious, as in the S.C. Johnson CEO’s co-authorship of a Smithsonian book. But elsewhere the effect is more subtle; a phrase swapped in here, the use of passive voice there, and the strategic withholding of anything that might lead the public to demand a change in policy, or to abhor the actions of the ruling class. As I went through the museum, I felt confused and paranoid, not because I felt as if all of the facts were being manipulated to serve an agenda, but because I couldn’t tell which ones were being manipulated.
That’s what should be concerning. Corporate sponsorship may only have a limited effect on museum content. Yet any effect at all erodes confidence in the museum’s status as a reliable guardian of fact. It’s understandable why chronically underfunded museums would turn to whatever revenue streams they can come by. But a museum sponsored by Mars and Monsanto cannot tell the full truth. To let American history be written by its corporations is to give preferential voice to the economy’s winner and profiteers, and to downplay or excuse the injustices inflicted upon its underclass.
Illustrations by Pranas Naujokaitis.