In 1846, Congress established the Smithsonian Institution with the intent to create, in the words of its founder, an "establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Its leaders have the responsibility to defend that legacy.
In making the decision to remove a controversial work of art from one of the Smithsonian's museums, and bungling the institution's response since its removal, Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough has shown that he cannot adequately uphold the mission and the legacy of this American institution.
The Smithsonian deserves a leader with the courage and dedication to fight for the art, history, science, and diversity of ideas that it houses. When the institution's board meets on Monday, it should ask Clough to step down.
The Smithsonian's dedication to preserving and expanding the understanding of all aspects of the American experience was wonderfully evident in the National Portrait Gallery's decision to display "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," an important exhibit that even many private art museums found too controversial to touch. "Hide/Seek" explores through portraiture the experience--often hidden from view or intentionally ignored--of gays and lesbians in America. By shedding light on a previously obscured part of American history, the exhibit managed to, in the words of the Smithsonian's mission statement, "explore and bring to light new knowledge and ideas" and "capitalize on the richness inherent in our differences."
But in late November, Clough chose to instantly buckle under pressure from a right-wing media storm and remove a work of art from the exhibit. Clough's decision was made, it seems, with very little input from the Portrait Gallery's staff or the Smithsonian's board, and without any formal avenue for public discussion. Instead, he listened to the reactionary politics of a far-right news source, extremist religious right leader Bill Donohue, and two newly elevated congressional leaders who had not even seen the exhibit but were eager to pander to their base by opening a new front in the culture wars. Clough responded to critics of his rushed decision not with an open and immediate discussion, but with the delayed promise of a public forum....to be held months after the exhibit closes. His actions damaged the integrity of the institution, and publicly contradicted the judgment of his staff. The Smithsonian, those who work for it, and the American people deserve better.
The controversy around "Hide/Seek" will not be an isolated incident. Instead, with the rise of the Tea Party and the GOP takeover of the House, the far right has found new and stronger voices in its effort to rewrite American history, redefine American values and narrow the range of the American experience. House Speaker John Boehner has already promised "tough scrutiny" of the Smithsonian's budget--and, presumably, its collections and research. Like with the right-wing campaigns against climate science and American Muslims, the campaign against the Smithsonian is likely to be loud and sensationalized. The institution, one of our greatest national resources, deserves a leader who will stand up for its integrity and fight for its future, not one who will so easily cave to the political pressures of the moment.
The Board of Trustees of the Hirshhorn Museum, the Smithsonian's contemporary art museum, issued a courageous statement criticizing the decision to remove the work from the Portrait Gallery, saying that it "harms the integrity of the individual Smithsonian units and the Institution as a whole." The trustees added, "If dissension arises over the presentation of a piece, then rather than remove it, that is the very moment to initiate conversation so that all perceptions may be heard in an effort to create greater awareness and understanding." Under Clough, that conversation never happened. Hoping that the controversy would blow over and promising a forum long after the exhibit is taken down is a woefully inadequate response.
It is in that spirit of challenge, conversation, and greater understanding that the Smithsonian was founded, and in which it continues to be an invaluable resource for all Americans. Clough's bad decision--and his mishandling of its aftermath--has not faded away. Instead, it will continue to distract from the Smithsonian's crucial work as long as he remains at its head.
The Smithsonian's board must continue the institution's history of provoking thought and encouraging understanding by appointing a chief executive with the courage to honor that legacy and take on that charge.