Telling the Story of the Anthropocene, or Not, in Major American History Museums

Friday, January 3, 2014: 2:30 PM
Columbia Hall 3 (Washington Hilton)
Roger D. Launius, National Air and Space Museum
One would think that the Anthropocene—a term characterizing the influence of human behavior on the Earth—would be a natural topic for historical museums.  In contrast to a major effort to tell the story of the Anthropocene at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany, no corresponding effort exists among that museum’s closest counterpart, the Smithsonian Institution.  Despite some efforts toward studying the Anthropocene, especially a scientific symposium dedicated to the subject at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, the actual collection of artifacts and their display in an exhibition has not yet even been attempted.  What might explain this situation?  I will offer three possible reasons.  First, the idea of the Anthropocene is a term of relatively recent vintage and it takes time to mount an exhibition on the subject.  Even so, the Deutsches Museum is doing so at present.  Second, funding for such an exhibition would be difficult to obtain from a myriad of sources both public and private.  The need to raise something approaching $10 million for any major exhibition requires considerable commitment and ingenuity in developing and carrying out such an effort.  Third, what I call the Enola Gay Effect often hampers efforts to pursue cutting-edge, potentially controversial exhibitions. Anthropogenic climate change is one of the most controversial topics in modern America, and such an exhibition would require addressing this issue head on.  It is not even a part of a current exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum, “Looking at Earth,” which by rights should discuss environmental history as contributed to by air and space based observation and measurement platforms.
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