At the National Museum of American History’s stores, shoppers can find the typical fare: themed Lego sets, caps, T-shirts, mugs, and the like. And as one might expect of the Smithsonian, which is dedicated to research and teaching, there are volumes upon volumes of books.
A set of campaign-flavored paper-doll books sits tucked away in a humor section of the museum’s main shop, on the ground floor. At first glance, the series by Tim Foley, which depicts Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders ($11.99 each), seems of a piece with the usual museum-shop fare. Each volume sets the candidate against a white background, with a red-white-and-blue palette.
In the Clinton book, an outfit of doctor’s scrubs is meant to illustrate her “commitment to national health-care reform,” while the image of an orange-pantsuit ensemble accompanies a passage celebrating her historic service as the first female senator of New York State. The Sanders book praises the candidate’s belief that all Americans deserve affordable and quality education. One would be hard pressed to find critical words in either.
That’s not the case in the Trump book. On one page, Trump wears a blue academic robe and carries a wad of $100 bills in one hand and a Trump University diploma in the other.
Other Trump plates feature “fact-checking,” the Statute of Liberty with a “Go Home” inscription, and a Trump bankruptcy.
Some of the book’s criticisms of Trump might be based in fact. But that’s beside the point if there are no critiques leveled at the other candidates.
There it is: a set of books in a Smithsonian shop criticizing the president. That this is a departure from tradition is suggested by the code of ethics set forth by the National Museum of American History (NMAH), which states that the museum must avoid “conduct that would compromise the integrity of or public confidence in the Smithsonian.” Moreover, since 1939, the Hatch Act has sought to “ensure that federal programs are administered in a nonpartisan fashion, to protect federal employees from political coercion in the workplace.”
“We try to stay apolitical,” says Kathy Sklar, the NMAH business-program manager. As the nation’s museum system, the Smithsonian welcomes visitors from across the political spectrum, Sklar adds.
Smithsonian shops are run by Smithsonian Enterprises, which also administers the institution’s theaters and restaurants, according to Sklar, who is the museum’s liaison to Smithsonian Enterprises. (Full disclosure: I’ve written for Smithsonian magazine, which is also run by Smithsonian Enterprises.)
Around inauguration time, the NMAH stores carry all sorts of political memorabilia. “Balance is the important word,” Sklar says. “We are always very careful to be balanced.”
The museum, she notes, has “plenty” of Trump merchandise, including a scrapbook about Trump and a new children’s book about him. Like the D.C. Metro system, the Smithsonian initially had trouble finding an official portrait of Trump to use in its marketing and merchandising materials.
Staff proposed creating souvenirs without an image of the then–president-elect, but “we were counseled not to do that,” Sklar says. “In inaugurations past, we always had an image. So we just worked harder until we had an image. We are always careful to be equal-opportunity.”
Of Foley’s paper-doll books, Sklar notes the context:
If they are in the humor section, I’m guessing that’s what they are. Did you notice a book that we have? On one side, it’s red and it says, “Stupidest things Republicans ever said.” And if you flip it over, it says, “Stupidest things Democrats ever said.” We are equal-opportunity. We would never have just one of those. We are kind of a national museum. There is a Smithsonian for everyone. In a sense, therefore, I think our merchandise reflects that.
The paper-doll creator doesn’t appear to share that perspective. In a “2016 Year in Review” post on his website, Foley recently wrote:
As I start the new year, it is with more trepidation, uncertainty, and fear than I’ve ever felt after any election year in my entire life. I’ve survived Republican presidents in the past (5 of them in fact), but never before have I had this feeling of riding on an out of control train barreling towards a cliff with a raving madman at the controls. Hopefully I am over-reacting.
Hrag Vartanian, who edits Hyperallergic, an influential blog that self-identifies as a platform for “radical thinking,” has been frequently and fiercely critical of Donald Trump. The Smithsonian, Vartanian told me in an interview, has a responsibility to present information accurately and to avoid bending to “political fashion” and presenting ideas that institution scholars and historians deem dangerous and hateful. “Bookstores, like museums, libraries, and other spaces the public sees as communal, are increasingly seen as a place where ideas live. I think it’s questionable to suggest there be equal representation in bookstores, since their placement in a store would be seen by many as an endorsement.” Bookstores shouldn’t, for instance, display books that justify Japanese internment or genocide denial, he says, even though specialists and scholars find these topics of interest.
“I think the Smithsonian should challenge visitors to consider the implications of ideas and to empathize with those different than themselves. That would be ideal, considering that the vast majority of their visitors are tourists, who are choosing to learn more and understand history, art, and culture.”
Readers of the Foley book, whether they voted for Trump or for Clinton, might agree that at least some of the criticisms of Trump are based in fact. But that’s beside the point if there are no critiques — also based in fact, of course — leveled at the other candidates. A slanted presentation can be true in part; its mistake is that it ignores or misrepresents context. And for an institution devoted to research and teaching, context is very important indeed.
— Menachem Wecker is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C.