The Smithsonian Institution's Heritage as Gristmill of Hegemonic Power on the National Landscape

Open Access
Bailey, Teresina Alexandra
Graduate Program:
Master of Science
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
Committee Members:
  • Deryck William Holdsworth, Thesis Advisor
  • Susan Walker Friedman, Thesis Advisor
  • Lakshman S Yapa, Thesis Advisor
  • Historical and Cultural Geography
  • Museum Culture
  • Museums
  • Hegemony
  • Indigenous
  • identity
  • heritage
  • race
  • census
  • science
  • art
ABSTRACT Viewed concretely, the Smithsonian Institution’s main museums, gradually raised along the promenade of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., are centralized processing and display units whose contents are curated from the vast array of cultural and natural history collections and archives housed by the institution. The Smithsonian’s numerous international research and collection locations gather large volumes of “real” material whose provenances are ostensibly representative and traceable to authentic origins as gleaned from the “lived experiences” and perspectives of cultures all over the globe. The institution provides materials and forums for professional and lay audiences to “consume an experience” by processing displays, seminars, and publications about this material – for entertainment, education or legitimization purposes. Viewed abstractly, constructs like identity and heritage are the primary artifacts of interest; they signify immaterial systems of knowledge that assign meaning to objects. These constructs are traceable to place: the hallowed western cultural institutions inclusive of their landscapes, buildings and regulating bodies. Archetypally, the Smithsonian is a strategic repository of power, worldviews and cultural activities that elevated the status of the United States as a new Western nation by creating sciences and employing an elite citizenry. This thesis historicizes the Smithsonian Institution as a metaphorical factory or gristmill of culture; established in 1846 upon the heels of European imperialism to create tandem subjects and systems of hegemony for the corporate-elite U.S. entity and to proliferate a certain set of cultural values. The Smithsonian, whose contents span global territories and cultures, became one of the most important and historic institutional faces of the United States chimera. As one of the first cultural institutions physically built in the District of Colombia, the Smithsonian processes cultural fodder of the U.S. – a global harbinger of contradiction: i.e., democratic mores as enforced by military-industrial power. Yet, this thesis also locates potentially decolonizing geographies within the Smithsonian’s contemporary presence. Culturally specific museums represent a complex discursive and representational power-share between institutions and marginalized populations; once studiously exploited and now invited to reconstruct a past as viewed from present cultural memories that simultaneously disentangle and reframe the museum’s object-based discourses. Historical contrasts are highlighted by examining organizational structures, mission, activities and shifting socio-temporal dynamics that undergird and challenge the Smithsonian’s standing as a national fiscal and cultural trust institution.