Defining American Culture?

Reading Kurin’s chapters I was struck by how almost all of us pursuing this line of work are cultural brokers. We are the “coaches” doing “strategic brokering” of cultural representations. I am interested in how the growth of the Smithsonian Institution from a place devoted to scientific inquiry to an umbrella of many museums, continues to define, preserve, and broker culture. How does this reflect our government’s definition of and stake in American culture? How does the Smithsonian, “regarded as the entity that most captures the American experience” curate and broker the cultural milieu of the melting pot in its various museums?

The additions of the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African- American History and Culture are the results of cultural brokering. Increased representation in both entertainment and scholarship created a broader understanding of American Indian and African American history and culture in the media, justifying separate museum spaces for their respective histories. Giving physical space to the stories of oppressed groups shows the diversity and complexity in defining American culture. The lore embedded in American textbooks is the idea that America is a melting pot or tossed salad of many cultures. Celebrating the cultural heterogenization in America through individual museums under the Smithsonian umbrella shows that the government believes those stories are important. And that other Americans should think so too. Of course, there are political advantages and ramifications in deeming the stories of oppressed groups in America deserving of standalone museums. It’s not inconsequential that Barack Obama signed the NMHAAC into creation. That in and of itself shows the power of government agents in determining the worth of culture.

What will the future of the Smithsonian Institution look like? As a national museum, will it continue to expand and celebrate the stores of American women, Latino-Americans, and Chinese-Americans, for instance, in standalone museums? What are the broader implications of telling minority stories separately as opposed to under one roof of “American history”? How does the government shape the public’s understanding of American culture?

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