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"The Last Act" Balancing Act
By Paul F. Straney and Robert Sacchi


Page 4

The National Air & Space Museum received almost nine million visitors last year. These visitors came from all over the world. The museum has audio tours in eight languages. Dr. Richard Hallion, pointed out why the exhibit must have complete information:

Many Museum visitors were born after 1975 some after 1980. It reminds me of an article that appeared in the LA Times a couple of years ago. The editor of a San Fernando Valley newspaper and his daughter were watching TV one Saturday afternoon or something and some John Wayne flick came on about World War II. She said, 'What is this about?' He said, 'It is about John Wayne fighting the Japanese.' She said, 'We fought Japan?' He said 'Yea.' She said, 'Who won?' You have people out there who don't even have a rudimentary understanding of World War II.

Dr. Crouch is aware of the difficulty and says, "That is why we have to get it right."

Why would the National Air & Space Museum want to take on such a daunting challenge? Dr. Tom Crouch explains this:

There are times when you have to place objects, aircraft in our case, in their broader context. If you're The (National) Museum of Natural History and you're exhibiting the Hope Diamond. You can put it in a black velvet case and turn the lights on and expect people to appreciate it for what it is. A thing of rare and marvelous beauty and all that. Well airplanes are things of rare and marvelous beauty too, but they are not works of art. They are social constructions. They're built for a purpose. People built them to perform certain tasks. It's hard to understand an airplane, a social construction, without seeing it in the context of the work that it performed, efficiently, inefficiently, whatever. I think that is particularly true when you're dealing with a story like this one, which represents a turning point in the history of the 20th century. I think by any reasonable account the atomic bombing of Japan was that sort of turning point. So this is a real important moment and it seems to me it's one of those occasions when you want to do something thoughtful. I guess that's as close as I would come to explaining why this one is being shown in that broader context. I would point out this certainly isn't the first time we've done that. ... Our V-2[WD1] downstairs is in a contextual exhibit that talks about everything from slave labor. I've always thought one of the most interesting things about the V-2 was the fact that as many people died building it as died on the receiving end. (1) It seems to me that's something pretty significant to say about a weapon system. It's shown in that broad context of, here is a device that's a two edge sword. It is built as a weapon of war and used after the war as a way to gain information about the universe. It's shown in that kind of a broad context too. Lots of other things in the museum are as well.

Dr. Hallion has no problem with the idea of a conceptual display, "As long as it is contextual, accurate, fair, and balanced." He warns a contextual exhibit will make someone unhappy:

I see the Enola Gay (2) as an extremely emotional artifact for everybody concerned. Veterans. Those who want to see it displayed with pride as a distinctive military achievement or whatever. Those who would want to see it displayed within the context of a decision to drop the bomb and end the war. Those that would want to see it displayed as an example of the horrors of nuclear war. From every perspective here, left, right, center this is an artifact that has some real emotional baggage with it. I would see it as a magnet for protests. I think that this exhibit comes off, no matter how it comes off, doesn't matter what the script says, no matter how it comes off somebody is going to be unhappy with this exhibit. The degree of that unhappiness is going to reflect itself, I'm sure, in some sort of protest and concern on the Mall. (3)

The greatest service the Exhibit can serve is to dispel some of the myths surrounding the atomic bombings. For example in the 1950s a rumor started that all the atomic bomb crew members either committed suicide or went insane. The exhibit script not only refutes the rumor it also explains how the rumor started. (4)

Some people have claimed Truman dropped the bomb to impress the Soviets. The Smithsonian addresses this issue. Many are not happy with this. Dr. Hallion says, "Some people think the world is flat that doesn't mean you give them exhibit space." Dr. Crouch explains the Smithsonian's position:

The Russians were an item in the mix but it was a small item. ... Truman decided to drop the bomb for valid military reasons.

After the sessions with the American Legion the Smithsonian changed the script to put more emphasis on President Harry S. Truman's concern over US casualties. The Smithsonian further downplayed the Soviet and other "factors in the mix."

1 The V-2 was a German ballistic missile. V-2s killed about 5,400 people almost all of them civilians. Some 20,000 slave laborers who worked on the V-2 project died during the war. Some slave laborers died from Allied bombing, but most died from the concentration camp's horrible conditions. Air & Space, February/March 1993, V-2 The Long Shadow, by Tom Huntington.

2 The Enola Gay is the name given to the Boeing B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb, "little Boy" on Hiroshima. Paul W. Tibbets, the aircraft commander, named the aircraft, tail number 44-86292, after his mother. The Smithsonian plans to display the Enola Gay's forward fuselage. Dr. Crouch regrets he couldn't display the entire aircraft. With a 99 foot (30.2 m) length and a 141.25 foot (43 m) wingspan the B-29 is too large for the National Air and Space Museum.

3 The Mall is the National Air and Space Museum's location.

4 One of the pilots who flew one of the weather missions for the Hiroshima bombing, he did not witness the bombing, attributed his committing a burglary to guilt. From there the rumor expanded. Soon many people believe all the atomic bombing crew members either committed suicide or were in mental institutions.

[WD1] Paul, do we want to use a V-2 picture.

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Paul F. Straney and Robert Sacchi © 1996