Smithsonian lauded for the approach it takes in new exhibit on capitalism

Historians in the News
tags: Smithsonian, American Enterprise




In late November 1999, a brigade of turtles stormed Seattle. Surprisingly loud, quick, and agile, they thronged the streets and shocked the bourgeoisie—not to mention members of the World Trade Organization, who were in town to negotiate global trade policy. Upon closer inspection, however, these radical reptiles turned out to be human activists sandwiched in cardboard shells they had spray-painted green. Along with masked anarchists (known as the black bloc) and union members, the human turtles faced down police and contributed to what’s still called—whether in admiration or consternation—the Battle of Seattle.

Today, one of those corrugated turtle shells is enshrined in a reverently dim stretch of corridor in American Enterprise, a new exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. If it seems odd that the curators have chosen to tell the story of business in the United States by including an artifact associated with a thoroughgoing critique of capitalism, consider its close proximity in the exhibit to another object: a napkin upon which economist Arthur Laffer sketched his eponymous curve in 1974—a visualization that would transform tax policy and influence the Reagan administration. The juxtaposition characterizes the spirit of the whole. To say that American Enterprise employs a “show all sides and let viewers make up their minds” curatorial strategy would be missing the point entirely. As an expression of the place of business in the United States today—at a time when inequality shapes public conversation and Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has become a bestseller—the exhibit acknowledges the ills of capitalism, but it also celebrates entrepreneurship as an expression of individuality. American Enterprise has a point of view, in other words—that Americans have had to find ways to support both the common good and business innovation and initiatives.

On a recent walk-through, cocurator Kathleen Franz of American University explained that the exhibit offers a narrative in objects and biographies, guiding museumgoers to think about how business history has an impact on the present day, in their own lives. “We wanted to explore the tension between capitalism and democracy,” she said, gesturing to the first of four “Debating Enterprise” panels, showing quotations from George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson on the proper economy for the new republic. “The conversations we had were intense,” Franz continued. “We knew we were telling business history from a different perspective, which played a role in what we thought needed to be represented in the exhibit.” ...




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