AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXVII, No. 1, Spring 1995


Controversy Over Smithsonian Exhibits
on American Science and Atomic Bombs

Physicists have vehemently criticized the "Science in American Life" exhibit which opened last summer at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History. In November the Council of The American Physical Society asked President Burton Richter "to convey its profound dismay" over the historical treatment. In a letter to Smithsonian's new Secretary, I. Michael Heyman, Richter said physicists felt the exhibit gave "a portrayal of science that trivializes its accomplishments and exaggerates any negative consequences."

The exhibit, supported by the American Chemical Society, concentrates on the public impact of all the sciences over the last century. It found space for only a few segments on physics (astronomy is not covered at all and geophysics is represented chiefly by a section on the Ozone Hole). Physicists noted that the most prominent displays relating to their profession were on the construction of the first atomic bomb--climaxing in photos of Hiroshima victims followed by a home fallout shelter--and the controversy over siting of the Superconducting Super Collider. Many believed that the exhibit should have highlighted areas of physics research whose material or intellectual contributions to society have been less ambivalent.

Curators pointed out that some of these topics are covered elsewhere in the museum, for example in a nearby exhibit on electronic computers. They also insisted that a wholly celebratory presentation would have been shamefully inaccurate, and held that the overall impression of science that visitors derive from the exhibit and its associated hands-on science study center was an attractive one. Many physicists disagreed. Robert L. Park of the APS's Office of Public Affairs wrote that the exhibit's message is "that Western civilization is heavily burdened with guilt, and science, as a servant of the power structure, must bear a large share of that guilt." [Science Communications vol. 16 (Dec. 1994), p.209]

Secretary Heyman responded to the APS by inviting a group of senior physicists to tour the exhibit and discuss it with him. After the discussion he announced that the museum would make some changes.

Meanwhile a still more passionate controversy invaded the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. For several years curators had been developing a major exhibit to accompany a display of the front end of the B-29 which dropped the Hiroshima bomb. They drafted a lengthy text which laid out the entire range of motives that historians have proposed for the bombing, described the suffering of the victims, and discussed the onset of the nuclear arms race. When the Air Force Association received a copy of the preliminary script, rather than responding privately, it published a severe criticism in its magazine.

Debate over the text, or over the few snippets which became generally known, rapidly spread through newspapers, magazines, radio and television news programs, and the Internet. The Smithsonian lost numerous donors and subscribers to its magazine, and some U.S. Senators threatened to take action against the museum. Critics and defenders focused almost exclusively on the exhibit's treatment of the motives and morality of dropping atomic bombs on Japan; the part that scientists played in developing nuclear weapons did not become a topic in this debate.

The question of how to handle the controversy became a controversy in itself. The views of many scholars were represented by the past, present, and prospective presidents of the Organization of American Historians, who issued a warning that cancellation of the exhibit would have a chilling effect: it would send "the message that certain aspects of our history are 'too hot to handle,' so susceptible to contested points of view that they must be excluded from the public mind." On the other hand, many felt that a major national commemoration of the end of the Second World War should have nothing that would distract attention from remembrance of the sacrifices Americans had made and the celebration of their victory over fascism.

At the end of January the Smithsonian announced it would restrict the exhibit to a simple presentation of the airplane, scrapping the extensive displays of information and interpretation that curators had prepared.

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