What was the Smithsonian thinking when it accepted money from the “UnHistory” Channel for a natural history exhibit?

On my recent trip to Washington, D.C., I visited the wonderful Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.  The museum excels at meeting its mission to dedicate itself “to inspiring curiosity, discovery, and learning about the natural world through its unparalleled research, collections, exhibitions, and education outreach programs.”  The many exhibits explore evolution, geography, mineralogy, biology, archeology, anthropology, oceanography, climatology and other natural sciences with verve and with very little of the dumbing down that often dooms natural history and science museums.  The collection of specimens, dinosaur bones, trilobite fossils, primate skulls, gems, stuffed animals and other artifacts is magnificent.

What I want to explore today is a temporary exhibition we saw called “Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th-Century Chesapeake,” which uses the methodologies of anthropologists to examine history through 17th-century bone biographies, including those of colonists on the edge of survival at Jamestown, Virginia and those of wealthy individuals in St. Mary’s City, Maryland.  “Written in Bone” depicts how researchers use recent technological breakthroughs to clarify and test the assumptions of colonial history.

A very interesting exhibition, but why did the Smithsonian have to stoop to taking money from the History Channel and letting the History Channel co-sponsor it?

Go ahead and ask me what my objection is to the Smithsonian partnering with the History Channel is, or the UnHistory Channel, as I like to call it.

It all comes down to the programming. 

Let’s look, for example, at the UnHistory Channel’s shows throughout the day and prime-time last Sunday: documentaries about ice-road truckers, pawn brokers, the impact of aliens on  ancient engineers, UFO’s and Bigfoot.  Note that there is nothing that’s pure history or natural history.  Instead we see reality-show slumming mixed with irrational beliefs such as aliens affecting the Earth and imaginary creatures.

The weekday lineup isn’t much better.  This week’s morning and afternoon programming on the UnHistory Channel includes shows on comic book heroes, UFO hunters, people who scour thrift stores for bargains, the Templar code (popular because of its fictional use in recent Dan Brown fictions), “MonsterQuest,” which “uses the latest high-tech equipment to take a scientific look at legendary creatures around the world” and “God versus Satan,” which explores theological beliefs surrounding a mythical celestial battle called Armageddon.

Weeknight primetime programming is no better: UFOs, ancient aliens, theology and pawn shops fill the bill, although later in the week, UnHistory Channel does have one prime-time show about the day after the September 11 attacks and another about New York City.

I understand that public institutions have faced funding challenges since President Ronald Reagan put them on a starvation diet that continues unabated after 30+ years.  But why stoop to accepting money and thereby providing widespread positive publicity to an organization that seems dedicated to tearing down everything that the National Natural History Museum stands for?  By entering into a “partnership” with the UnHistory Channel, the Natural History Museum endorses that TV station’s programs and approach to programming, which essentially is to give the superstitious, the theocrats and the intellectually lazy what they want, instead of presenting truth and examining real historical and scientific controversies.

When a natural history museum accepts funding from banks, computer companies, oil companies and other large corporations, it sometimes finds itself dealing with entities that damage the environment or would prefer to deny the impact of global warming.  But denying global warming or drilling for oil in protected lands is not the mission of these companies, it’s a byproduct of their short-sided approach to their real missions.  Like most people, these corporations are ethically complex creatures. They do many things, some bad and some very good.

But the mission of the UnHistory Channel, as seen in its programming, is completely antithetical to any natural history museum.  Virtually every show the channel currently airs is harmful to legitimate science and history, because it 1) enables unscientific and unhistorical myths to fester; 2) passes off irrational belief as empirical science;  or 3) plays into the most trivial concerns of contemporary reality television such as pawn shops and those who drive trucks over ice.

Throughout the “Written in Bone” exhibition were little icons of UnHistory Channel sponsorship.  Perhaps because of the colonial connection, I looked at these icons as little badges of shame, much like Hawthorne’s scarlet letter on the dress of the adulteress, Hester Pryne.  The difference of course is that the fictional colonial Bostonian society forced Hester to wear her bright red A.  By contrast, the Smithsonian has willingly embraced its badges of shame.

The Smithsonian should have passed on working with the UnHistory Channel on “Written in Bone,” and it should accept no future funding from the UnHistory Channel. 


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