The Zeitgeist of Tyranny: What Should Museums Do?


In the century that has followed the rise and near-triumph of Nazism between the 1920s and 1945, history has judged not just Adolf Hitler, his government, paramilitary organizations, and army. We have also become aware of the almost total submission of German civic institutions to Nazism:  the courts, universities, banks, hospitals, arts organizations – all of which increasingly complied with the racial and social strictures of the Nazi Party.  They fired Jewish employees, cooperated with laws on sterilization and the treatment of the mentally ill, and began censoring any art considered “degenerate.”  At the time, without the hindsight of history, many of these movements toward compliance with Nazi ideology might have seemed small, insignificant, barely noticeable in the tumult of daily life and impending war. 

In the current context, following the  impeachment hearings, the cloud of the failed Iowa caucuses, the State of the Union message of February 4, 2020, and the possibility that Trump will be president for four more years,  I believe that we are entering a period when civic institutions must wake up and take notice of any subtle adjustments they make to the “new normal.” By that I mean the racist, xenophobic, anti-scientific, anti-democratic zeitgeist of the United States today.  Museums as civic institutions must begin to “Take responsibility for the face of the world.” (Timothy Snyder)

In his prescient work, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, World War IIhistorian Timothy Snyder depicts the subtle evolution of authoritarian government. Published first as a list on Facebook just after the election of 2016, the list was expanded to a small pamphlet in January, 2017.  It’s easy to slip into a pocket or purse.  Although all twenty lessons are important, I have selected four that seem most pertinent to the work of museums and other cultural institutions.

              Lesson 1:  Do not obey in advance.  Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given.

”In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked.” (Snyder p. 17) We find examples of this “anticipatory obedience” in the decisions of the National Archives as well as the Library of Congress to modify photographs and thus the historical record regarding the opposition of many women to Trump in the Women’s March of January 2017.  Both institutions anticipated opposition to images that showed derogatory demonstrations and signs against Trump.  Although the institutions have since apologized, these incidents should warn all of us. An example: Is it difficult to hire scholars from abroad these days? Well why not simply decide we won’t advertise positions outside the US? Better still, let’s just make being a US citizen a requirement for senior positions at our major cultural organizations and universities.  So much less hassle as we narrow the traditionally global impact of scholars and scientists. 

Lesson 2:  Protect institutions.

In an article about the appointment of Lonnie Bunch as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution,  Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott wrote:

“Bunch also takes over at a moment of extreme peril in human history, and he will lead perhaps the only institution in American life that has both the intellectual capacity and the public credibility to confront the three greatest dangers we now face: climate change, the cultural and technological corruption of democratic processes, and white supremacy and neo-nationalism.” (Emphasis mine.)

Research shows that museums in general continue to share in the credibility Kennicott ascribes to the Smithsonian.  This value of trustworthyness brings great responsibility   Are we in museums willing to shoulder it?

Lesson 5: Remember professional ethics.

At the same time as the National Archives appeared to anticipate pushback from the Administration on its exhibitions, the Archives was having trouble gaining access to documents and records of the presidency that it is entitled (actually required) to collect and preserve.  Accounts of improper shredding and erasing of documents can be found here and here.   

Archives, libraries, and history museums in particular must be vigilant regarding the alteration or destruction of the historical record.  ICE as well as other government agencies are being allowed to destroy with impunity records of their work, including cases at the border 

Some of this destruction is occurring as libraries’ and archives’ capacities for storage of paper are running out, and as funding for digitization and staffing is being cut.  But this is much more than a practical matter of space and money.  When Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the first presidential library-his own- in 1940, he stated:

“To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a Nation must believe in three things: It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.”

At this very moment in the United States, the past is being destroyed.

Lesson 8: Stand out.

Many of us wear our #MuseumsAreNotNeutral tee shirts proudly, but this is not simply a matter of couture.  What are some ways that our institutions could stand out – not against Trump or the Republicans nor for a Democratic candidate?  Rather we must stand out and not be neutral about the values of our democracy that are under threat. And we must think of ways that we can reinforce these values for our visitors.  Are polling places disappearing, especially in communities of color in your city?  Could your museum serve as a polling center?  Are laws protecting the environment in your state being repealed by the current administration and the EPA?  What about an exhibition or a public program? A town meeting to discuss local environmental concerns?  Is there confusion and misinformation about the nature and spread of the coronavirus?  Now that federal health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci must clear all public communication with the White House, can science museums work to assure that accurate information on the coronavirus is being communicated?

I urge everyone to read Snyder’s booklet and to think about the ways in which our profession can and must work to combat a world-view that is antithetical to museums’ very reasons for being.  I hope that this initiative can spread through social media, through networked conversations, and through additional writing. I believe  that our resistance must be intentional, explicit, and public. As the ancient principle of common law says: Justice must not only be done; it must be seen to be done.

If readers have ideas about how to move forward with this project, please contact me by email, on FaceBook or Twitter @gretchjenn. Mark your calendars now for a Twitter Chat hosted by Janeen Bryant of The Empathetic Museum on April 7, 2020, at 2pm EST.  We’ll send out reminders.  I look forward to talking with you online and at the upcoming American Alliance for Museums meeting in May.   I hope to have a location where we can meet.  Stay tuned for date, time, and place. 

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