When Corporations Make History
May 25, 2017 4:53 AM   Subscribe

"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." - Blight At The Museum, how corporate donations are taking control of American history at the Smithsonian.
posted by The Whelk (34 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've noticed this at my local children's museum. All the damn touring exhibitions are corporate ads (Barbie, Etch-a-Sketch, etc.)
posted by leotrotsky at 5:16 AM on May 25, 2017 [4 favorites]


Well, this is what you get in a society that doesn't support its cultural institutions with either governmental funds or private contributions.

The Mars chocolate thing, for instance, is a really good and very responsible program. They've funded chocolate programs at a few other places, including Colonial Williamsburg - I am most familiar with it from Boston's Old South Historic Chocolate Shop, where visitors dropping in, for free, can get a 5-minute history of how chocolate was made and consumed in Colonial Boston, and also enjoy a sample. The interpreters are quite knowledgeable, and if the Mars program wasn't funding it, it simply wouldn't exist. At all. It's not like the museum would or could fund it. Mars also supported the research and publication of Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage, an enormous scholarly tome which is a gift to food historians and culinary professionals. And their Heritage Chocolate series is sold only in museums. I think that brushing it off as a "crowd-pleaser" is unfair, and dismissive of food-related subjects, which are after all serious interpretive topics. Chocolate was a product of the Atlantic slave trade. It's important. Also, if it's meant to market to children, it's a dismal failure - most kids wrinkle their nose at the drinking chocolate sample they give out. It's bitter and not what they're used to, and more often than not, they refused it. Adults mostly like it.

What works about the Mars programs is that their messaging is not slyly a promotion of buying contemporary Mars chocolate. It's integrated with the museums and supports the museums' interpretive and educational goals. The other examples at the Smithsonian are much more disturbing because they are less overt and less clearly/directly sponsored, and reflect a deep involvement of corporate shaping of an interpretive or educational message - which is something that should stand as apart from corporate sponsorship as journalism should stand apart from advertising. The interpretive process should be independent. But - especially at very highly visible and politicized museums like the Smithsonian - it is not. We saw an era of political pressure during the Enola Gay controversy. Now, those museums are funded at an even stingier level and have taken on more functions, spreading everything thin, and there is corporate and political alignment on certain messaging that happens there. I have some colleagues that work at the Smithsonian who would be the first to say that what the article calls the 'sheen' of public-mindedness does not permeate the institution at a values level. It just cannot. Congress is involved.

What I'm most concerned about in these things is the determination of interpretive slant. The pro-business, pro-capitalist, pro-military message is pervasive in the Smithsonians and in many major traveling exhibitions. It goes deep to the roots of the conceptualizing of exhibitions and clearly shows that historians' perspectives have been marginalized in favor of capitalist messages. And that happens at a very high level, in discussions between directors, development officers, and representatives of corporate foundations. The author says "one gets the vague sensation that the information being consumed has been subtly molded by its sponsors. " It's not vague at all - it's carefully designed, and once the interpretive direction is set by leadership, every other professional works in alignment with the interpretive messaging. The result is, well, propaganda, rather than thoughtful consideration of content with critical perspectives.

tl;dr: vote, talk to your representatives about your support for and appreciation of the grant programs that support independently managed exhibits that reflect scholarship instead of PR (which are on the chopping block as we speak in the proposed Trump budget) and donate to your favorite museums' annual fund. All this will assist them in developing greater independence.
posted by Miko at 5:50 AM on May 25, 2017 [46 favorites]


Here at the Citigroup Center for Physics Research, our biggest-brained scientists have discovered a capitalism particle! Investment banking is actually an innate property of the universe.
posted by indubitable at 5:53 AM on May 25, 2017 [19 favorites]


It's been a while since I've read it, but this seems like it would fit into the dystopian novel "Jennifer Government."
posted by drezdn at 5:55 AM on May 25, 2017 [4 favorites]


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.

Pretty much exactly how I feel about the New York Times.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:59 AM on May 25, 2017 [26 favorites]


Because it's bound to come up: The Smithsonian gets only 60% of its funding from the federal government. Most of that is not earmarked for exhibitions, meaning that to produce exhibitions it must engage with donors, whether corporate, private, or foundation.

This is an interesting report on the 21st-century realities of exhibition funding from 2002 [PDF}:
Museum development officers both inside and outside SI emphasized what they saw as the changing nature of exhibition sponsorship by corporations. In particular, they saw a shift in sponsorship from corporate foundations to corporate marketing departments and, as a consequence, a shift in interest from the museums’ missions toward the potential for a particular exhibition at a particular museum to enhance corporate revenues...Comments by most interviewees in this study supported the growing importance to corporate givers of expanding brand recognition and influencing decision-makers..
This other paragraph shows how even the highest level of decision-making about what a museum should present influences the ultimate choice of exhibition topic:
Development specialists interviewed across the country stated that corporate marketers may be uninterested in supporting even a likely blockbuster during periods when sales are good, because they have no incentive to burnish their image, and sometimes fear that a particular exhibition might involve them in controversy or expose them to some kind of unanticipated negative publicity. For example, one museum fundraiser stated that an exhibition on prenatal development is not likely to obtain corporate support. The museum is not sure it can secure foundation or private funding either, because “the material is too controversial... there are religious objections, and sponsors may not want to be affiliated.” The museum will try to obtain funds from the government, e.g., the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health.
posted by Miko at 6:00 AM on May 25, 2017 [17 favorites]


The local children's science museum has exhibits which clearly slant towards corporate messaging. There was an exhibit, in the dino section, which was one of those "rides", where your seat moves and air and mist come out at fraught points of the narrative. It was marketed as a ride through Texas dinosaur history, and what it *was* was a 10 minute pitch on how good an idea fracking was in the shale deposits around here.

I was furious, and registered my complaint, but really, what power do I have to change it? My $125 membership is nothing compared to Exxon's millions.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 6:03 AM on May 25, 2017 [10 favorites]


I got about a third of the way in, and kept thinking about the Koch-funded "Hall of Human Origins" that all the science advocacy groups were worried would muddy the water about evolution, only to end up quite solid on that front but have its real muddying efforts being the denial of global warming and its effects. I'm glad the article briefly touched on that near the end.

This article accurately diagnoses a disease, but presents no clear cure. The problem, I fear, is that there may not be one. It may be that the only thing we can do is constantly and strongly document it and promote a more realistic view whenever possible... until Ajit Pai kills Net Neutrality, and the ISPs simply block all those nasty mentions of the truth at the request of their corporate partners.
posted by mystyk at 6:03 AM on May 25, 2017 [3 favorites]


> The implication here is that people don’t want good public transit, they want GM cars.

This isn't a museum and therefore not the same thing, but even when I was 12 or so and my family visited Epcot I found it a bit weird that the World of Motion was sponsored by GM, The Land was sponsored by Kraft, etc.. The World of Motion in particular was pretty on-the-nose in that it was more or less a history of all the crappy, flawed forms of transportation humanity went through before we reached the pinnacle of getting from point A to point B, which was of course cars, GM cars specifically.
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:14 AM on May 25, 2017 [7 favorites]


This article accurately diagnoses a disease, but presents no clear cure.

The cure is buckets of guaranteed and irrevocable public funding, with no strings attached. The article doesn't need to present this because A) we all know that this is what the solution is and B) we all know that this will never, ever happen in our lifetimes.
posted by tobascodagama at 6:21 AM on May 25, 2017 [34 favorites]


The cure for poverty is to not be poor. The cure for sickness is to be healthy. And the cure for too much funding being corporatized is to not have so much of it be corporatized...

Yeah, we can play the game of "there's technically a solution out there" but if that solution is by your own admission unfeasible/unachievable, then we're back to square one. I can appreciate the snark, but the Soldier in me much prefers a solid course of action -- I just don't see any viable ones because anything remotely feasible runs into an issue of collective-action, and America has a fundamental problem when it comes to doing that in any useful and organized manner.
posted by mystyk at 6:43 AM on May 25, 2017 [4 favorites]


We must be practical and demand the impossible.
posted by The Whelk at 6:53 AM on May 25, 2017 [19 favorites]


Makes me think of the old GM-sponsored World of Motion pavilion at EPCOT Center, and its message of, "All transportation was ridiculous until modern GM automobiles!"
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:59 AM on May 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


I'm reminded of the signs that at least USED to be in the New Orleans aquarium proudly noting "The Gulf of Mexico: Brought to you by BP".
posted by uberchet at 7:20 AM on May 25, 2017 [9 favorites]


My $125 membership is nothing compared to Exxon's millions.

Secret pro tip if you want to impact a museum's budget: opt for the annual fund instead of membership - or do both. Membership programs are not really fundraising centers for museums. Because they come with programming, discounts, and staffing costs, they tend to cost museums about as much or more than they bring in. What membership programs really do is increase loyalty (hence the attendance numbers that can be used to draw other fundraising), and serve as a marketing platform (via members-only events, newsletters, magazines, mailing lists, etc).

By contrast, the Annual Fund is run by existing staff, comes with no programs, and generates general operating dollars - the best kind, which can be applied to any activity or program the museum deems to be in need of support. Even $25 toward an annual fund is better than a $50 membership - though of course, people often want a membership so they can get free admission. So, if you can, do both.
posted by Miko at 7:25 AM on May 25, 2017 [22 favorites]


Re; EPCOT: Historian Mike Wallace has a really great and much-assigned collection called "Mickey Mouse History" with a whole section on "Disney Pasts," which includes ruminations on Epcot Center's bullshit. If you can turn up a copy, you'll enjoy it.
posted by Miko at 7:28 AM on May 25, 2017 [5 favorites]


On the subject of Epcot, I do remember an exhibit (for lack of a better term) sponsored by GE that talked about the wonder of coal, comparing it with how much energy a person had to exert to power a TV. This was the 80s, so I think the focus was more on ignoring acid rain than global warming, but the intent was there.

I think this also probably goes some length to explain why the halls of human history at the American Museum of Natural History were (as of two years ago) still holding writing from the 60's. The artifacts were beautiful, but there was writing about Siam and comparisons of the Pacific Islanders to civilized peoples. (I think they didn't use that exact language, but it was pretty bad.) There's no profit in throwing money at it. I was complaining to my fiancee about it and her roommate (who at the time worked at the Rose Center - the astronomy part of the museum) got a bit defensive and talked about a lack of funding for that. (I admit, it was a bit assholish of me to complain about that stuff with her in the same room, but I hadn't been thinking about her job at the time.) The AMNH is aware, they just don't have anyone willing to pony up the cash. Which makes sense for corporations to stay the hell away from it, because any misstep in the presentation of various peoples (including the fact that for some reason there is no Peoples of Europe room) could damage the brand.
posted by Hactar at 7:55 AM on May 25, 2017 [1 favorite]


The cure is buckets of guaranteed and irrevocable public funding, with no strings attached.

Fortunately the self promoting frauds this would normally attract are totally unknown in both academia and the arts.
posted by mark k at 8:01 AM on May 25, 2017 [3 favorites]


You want to see where this trend goes? Visit Kidzania.

It is almost astonishingly pure corporate PR/marketing in the guise of "experiential learning" and other guff.

[previously]
posted by chavenet at 8:04 AM on May 25, 2017 [4 favorites]


Fortunately the self promoting frauds this would normally attract are totally unknown in both academia and the arts.

As an alternative to the self-promoting frauds in the capital class currently running things? I'll take my chances, thanks.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:05 AM on May 25, 2017 [7 favorites]


chavenet- that is horrifying.
posted by zenon at 8:42 AM on May 25, 2017


> 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.

> Pretty much exactly how I feel about the New York Times.

In recognition of the currently lowered expectations for reality: I read this and instead of hoping for increased, reliable funding, my first thought was "wouldn't it be great if all presentations made by 3rd parties are clearly labeled as such, from news articles to museum exhibits, and if the sponsoring entity fails to disclose this information, they are fined in accordance to the viewership and the company size, but that's not going to happen in the next 2-4 years."

I also hope for guerrilla brochures and even pop-up exhibits and museums to counter this propaganda. Seriously, let's make that happen, starting with brochures. Match the museum brochure design style, provide additional information.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:08 AM on May 25, 2017 [6 favorites]


This is the reason why I was so disappointed with the Museum of Science and Industry here in Chicago. Compared to all the other biggies, I was more than underwhelmed; I was angry. The exhibit on Genetics had nothing to say about the controversial aspects of the technology. The Chemistry part of the exhibit, although better; still did nothing to address the downsides of not caring about environmental consequences of unrestrained industrialization. It looked like a Industry sponsored propaganda rather than a Museum of Science. Even though I can go to the Museum any time I want for free; I have absolutely no interest.

OTOH, I visited the Columbus Museum of Science and Industry and that was really good. The docents seemed engaged and knowledgeable. The Museum also did not feel like a propaganda machine.
posted by indianbadger1 at 9:16 AM on May 25, 2017


mystyk: "Yeah, we can play the game of "there's technically a solution out there" but if that solution is by your own admission unfeasible/unachievable, then we're back to square one. I can appreciate the snark, but the Soldier in me much prefers a solid course of action -- I just don't see any viable ones because anything remotely feasible runs into an issue of collective-action, and America has a fundamental problem when it comes to doing that in any useful and organized manner."

Either the government funds it or the curators responsible should step down and not put their names next to this sham. I'm sure our generous social safety net will... oh, oh I see.
posted by TypographicalError at 9:34 AM on May 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


Yeah, we can play the game of "there's technically a solution out there" but if that solution is by your own admission unfeasible/unachievable, then we're back to square one. I can appreciate the snark, but the Soldier in me much prefers a solid course of action -- I just don't see any viable ones...

Your contribution to the effort has been noted. Thanks.
posted by Etrigan at 10:24 AM on May 25, 2017 [1 favorite]


We must be practical and demand the impossible.

I'm sure this was meant to be a joke but I think it is a beautiful distillation of JFK's do the hard things speech.
posted by srboisvert at 10:50 AM on May 25, 2017 [3 favorites]


Your contribution to the effort has been noted. Thanks.

Ok, let's put it another way: I already donate to nonprofits (including Smithsonian) annually. I've organized fundraisers and lobbying efforts on a variety of topics. I've done the direct action part that I can, but I see first hand the problem of getting people motivated to chip in, and I don't know a good way around it. Without dedicated government funding, we're almost certainly just not going to get there, and as long as conservatives hold even a fraction of their current power, government funding isn't in the cards.

So unless you know of a team of billionaires willing to bequeath their estates with no strings attached and then promptly deliver, then we have a problem that appears to have no viable solution.
posted by mystyk at 11:23 AM on May 25, 2017


This has been going on for while - my earliest awareness of it was in 2000, when an excellent small exhibit about Woody Guthrie was forced to close early so that it could be replaced with a Koch-bankrolled one glorifying James Madison. A decade or so after that, they invested a ton of money in the Natural History Museum renovation - it now features a panel about species decline due to climate change that basically says, "don't worry kids, you'll always have dandelions and rats no matter how bad things get! Everything is going to be fine!"

I still love the Smithsonian, but especially going there w/my kids now, you need to have your bullshit detector on in way that you did not in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

I've told them that any time they hear the word "business" in a museum context, they should assume someone is about to start lying to them.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:52 AM on May 25, 2017 [3 favorites]


I'm sure this was meant to be a joke but I think it is a beautiful distillation of JFK's do the hard things speech.

I've heard it used non-jokingly in labor/lefty/anarchist circles for years now
posted by The Whelk at 12:40 PM on May 25, 2017 [1 favorite]


I've heard it used non-jokingly in labor/lefty/anarchist circles for years now.

It was one of the primary slogans of the leftist bloc during the May 1968 uprising in Paris, associated with the Situationist International.
posted by ryanshepard at 1:10 PM on May 25, 2017 [4 favorites]


don't worry kids, you'll always have dandelions and rats no matter how bad things get!

"Rats and dandelions" doesn't have quiiite the same ring as "bread and roses," does it?

Our days shall not be sweated from birth 'til day of dying,
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us rats and dandelions.


I'm so sorry, kids.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:17 PM on May 25, 2017


I still love the Smithsonian, but especially going there w/my kids now, you need to have your bullshit detector on in way that you did not in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

This is a sort of nostalgia that I think is inherently dangerous. History has always been written and controlled by the rich. If historians were able to be more honest, it was only because they were ignored as non-threatening to the existing political order.

Historians can be accurate about the past as long as they maintain the polite fiction that it is in the past. We can learn about the ways that we were horrible, so long as it shows how we have become great. If the lesson is that we still have a lot of work to do, it suddenly becomes political and attacked.

I work for a large clothing company that has a historian on staff. And it's absolutely something we justify to the board of directors because it elevates our brand recognition. But on the whole, it's something I'm glad we do. While we might do it because we are self-interested, we're also able to finance exhibitions that otherwise might not be able to exist. We recently helped a couple expand their collection of battle vests in a coherent way that traced their history from WWII and how they evolved and vary between the punk and metal, which can't help but tie to the social and political movements they align themselves with. With the extra legitimacy and resources, it went from being a side project to an exhibit with (some LA museum whose name escapes me).

To be clear, the couple absolutely knew the historical significance of their work. They just struggled to garner outside interest or have the resources to fill in some gaps in their collection. Especially since it is a subculture that is wary of the dominant capitalist system, making their history at risk to being erased.

And that's not to say that it can't become problematic. We're ignoring a lot of textile/retail history that I hope can be financed by other sources. Hell, that's actually the historical context that Adam Smith argued for self-interest. He saw how the ruling elite were using patronage to be ridiculous and override the expertise of the people actually doing the work. By offering a diverse set of funding options for historians, they are free to use their best judgement on how to present history in a way that is accurate and socially relevant to everyone.

I like staying employed. So while you can easily figure out who I'm talking about, I'd appreciate keeping anything identifying to memail. .
posted by politikitty at 1:58 PM on May 25, 2017 [7 favorites]


I also hope for guerrilla brochures and even pop-up exhibits and museums to counter this propaganda. Seriously, let's make that happen, starting with brochures. Match the museum brochure design style, provide additional information.

I am intrigued by your ideas and wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

Especially this brochure idea.
posted by Miko at 2:48 PM on May 25, 2017 [4 favorites]


My husband and I went to a museum a few years ago and saw an exhibit showcasing insects and spiders and snakes. The corporate sponser was Orkin and to this day we found it downright hilarious. I mean, doesn't Orkin want to kill all those creatures? Hah.
posted by FireFountain at 7:10 AM on May 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


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