Great Americans and the Smithsonian


D.C. businesswoman and philanthropist Catherine B. Reynold's wallet flapped shut this week, after curators at the Smithsonian Institution wailed and moaned at her offer to give $38 million to create a new exhibit. Why all the fuss? Reynolds wanted the American History Museum to display an inspirational showcase of super-achievers: Nobel laureates, Olympic gold medalists, famous entrepreneurs, and other "Great Americans."

One might guess that the museum's curators were horrified that the reviled Great Man theory of history, one they've spent years moving into storage, was about to reassert itself as the Great Corporate Busybody theory. They may have also been perturbed that some moneybags know-nothing was calling the shots. Martha Stewart was apparently on the future exhibit's A-list, as was the likes of Olympic figure skater Dorothy Hamill and AOL chief Steve Case.

But those curators were surely onto something. Putting aside the specter of a Martha Stewart diorama, what museumgoer would want his solemn meditation on the struggles of the oppressed–one of the Smithsonian's major shticks–interrupted by an exhibit on an athlete best remembered for her trend-setting mid-70s hair-do?

Fortunately, for those who do prefer such fare, there are plenty of exhibitions to choose from–they're just not lining the grass of D.C.'s national Mall. The U.S. is overrun with museums, and the really exciting ones are often the ones that don't presume to have figured out, on behalf of 286 million Americans, which people or objects deserve space on the great pedestal defining American life. Or better yet, the ones that ridicule the institutions that do.

With $38 million, Reynold's should forget those querulous Washington curators and create her own collection, filled with tender relics from the Martha Stewart empire or whatever else she fancies. Which raises an intriguing question: What cabinets of wonder would each of you build with those millions?