Interpretation and Bias in Public Memory, Part Two

A pair of posts shared by Andrew Deci, which can also be read on his personal website.

By Andrew Deci


NOTE: The following post is an excerpt/compilation of excerpts from an essay I prepared for class at the University of Mary Washington. The class, “Public Memory” was a senior seminar which explored interpretation of history and how preservation interacts with that interpretation. It was perhaps my favorite class in college. The readings were focused on two books, Sense of History by David Glassberg and New History in an Old Museum by Richard Handler and Eric Gable.

This is the second and final half of my ramblings on bias, interpretation, and public memory in America. See part one here.

Perhaps one of the most controversial of interpretations in recent history has been the display and exhibit related to the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Institution. It was controversial because it presented a history that many considered to not honor the valor of WWII and the ‘patriotic’ choice of dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

As originally planned, the exhibition of the Enola Gay was to present not only the plane itself, but a context of information discussing the reasons that the bomb was going to be dropped; the saving of American lives and resources and the avoidance of a ground conflict in Japan. In addition to this background information, the exhibition was also to present the aftermath of the dropping of the bomb; the incineration of innocent civilians and the new knowledge of nuclear power.

Veterans groups were not happy with the presentation of the aftermath. They saw the decision as being a way for Americans to preserve the American way of life; not as a ‘horrific’ option chosen by a ‘bad people.’ Many of the exhibit designers (the others) wanted to present both sides – exposing the fact that the Enola Gay did more than just end the war, it ended lives. The orthodoxy defined this as being an unpatriotic stance, especially because the Smithsonian is a formal presentation of American history, on behalf of the American government.

In general, the controversies surrounding the exhibition of the Enola Gay revolved around the interpretation of the dropping of the bomb, patriotism, and ‘unpatriotic actions.’ The patriotic orthodoxy ultimately controls the national history and notion of revisionism.

Our national history is controlled in two main forums, the formal academic and cultural centers of our nation, and the informal memories of our own minds. We, as individuals, keep a rolling history of what we have experienced and the stories of the past that we have gotten from past generations (either directly through stories or indirectly as primary source documents).

Often times it is easier for us to remember the good times, the good choices, and forget about the bad times, and the bad choices. The formal, academic preservation of history acknowledges this personal bias and often tries to represent the bad choices and the bad times within our history. A celebratory history is one in which we can revel in the things that we have done well and acknowledge our predecessors as good people. The orthodoxy would certainly present a claim that any intention by an individual or institution to represent the past outside of this narrow framework is unpatriotic and revisionist.

Besides this tight political control on how national history should be remembered, there is friction between ‘normal citizens’ and the ‘cultural elite.’ We, as individuals, may hold disdain for a group of academic elites pressing upon us a way of thinking and a view of our own history.

Until the public realizes that history is not always a wonderful occasion, that new evidence may present past ‘good actions’ as ‘bad actions,’ and that the academic world of history is not trying to apologize for past actions, there will always be tension between a national, celebratory history and a real history.

While discussing the Enola Gay controversy in class, I stumbled on to a comparison that I have grown especially fond of – the museum as newspaper, and bias as editorial control. I like to use this comparison as an easy way of explaining the (often) unknown bias in museums.

Just as newspapers are controlled by a group of individuals that make decisions, have opinions, and present their stories to the public, museums also are controlled by a group of people with ideologies, have opinions and present their exhibits to the public. Exhibits are forums in which a group of people represent a historic time period, theme, or person in order to inform the public. News stories try to teach the public about an event, person, or place that has done something or that is doing something. Editorial control within newspapers and museums are similarly held by a small group of individuals; ultimately final decisions are made by a leader, editor, or curator.

Especially in the last half-decade, political scientists have been examining the role of media in politics and bias in the