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How America Chooses to Remember Itself: 200 Years of U.S. Museums, and Presenting the Civil War, Spanish Flu, and the Culture Wars

September 01, 2022
00:00 42:11
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On an afternoon in January 1865, a roaring fire swept through the Smithsonian Institution. The New York Times wrote that “the destruction of so many of its fine collections will be viewed as a national calamity.” Dazed soldiers and worried citizens could only watch as the flames engulfed the museum’s castle. Rare objects and valuable paintings were destroyed. The flames at the Smithsonian were not the first —and certainly would not be the last—disaster to upend a museum in the United States. Beset by challenges ranging from pandemic and war to fire and economic uncertainty, museums have sought ways to emerge from crisis periods stronger than before, occasionally carving important new paths forward in the process.

But museums ask questions about power and who gets to determine what stories are told or foregrounded, who gets to determine how those things are exhibited, framed, and talked about.

To talk with us today about museums is today’s guest, historian and professor Samuel J. Redman. He’s the author of The Museum: A Short History of Crisis and Resilience. We explore World War I and the 1918 influenza pandemic, the Great Depression, World War II, the 1970 Art Strike in New York City, and recent controversies in American museums from the COVID-19 pandemic to race and gender issues, this timely book takes a novel approach to understanding museum history, present challenges, and the future. By diving deeper into the changes that emerged from these key challenges, Samuel J. Redman argues that cultural institutions can—and should—use their history to prepare for challenges and solidify their identity going forward.

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Meet Your Host
Meet Your Host
Scott Rank is the host of the History Unplugged Podcast and a PhD in history who specialized in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. Before going down the academic route he worked as a journalist in Istanbul. He has written 12 history books on topics ranging from lost Bronze Age civilizations to the Age of Discovery. Some of his books include The Age of Illumination: Science, Technology, and Reason in the Middle Ages and History’s 9 Most Insane Rulers.. Learn more about him by going to
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