Americans trust museums even more than history books and history professors as reliable sources of information. But is that trust warranted? Some museums are now telling a grossly distorted version of American history.
This is a deliberate extension of the long march through America’s institutions. The capture of our historic sites has been the concerted effort of interconnected organizations with considerable resources and part of the downstream impact of our biased higher education system.
As I have documented previously, James Madison’s home of Montpelier is one example of how historic sites have become ideological battlegrounds. Madison himself is now missing at Montpelier, as there are no exhibits dedicated to his significant accomplishments. The sole exhibit for children aims to teach them about race and slavery. This is done through books featuring “imagination exercises” for blacks and whites; one such exercise encourages children to imagine themselves not as the victim, but as the aggressor, whipping a fellow human being. Using state funds, Montpelier is also developing anti-racist curriculum for Virginia public schools. They are making a concerted effort to teach America’s children radical ideas.
And they are not alone. The Lincoln Cottage has developed social and emotional learning (SEL) curriculum and programming. According to Max Eden, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, the SEL curricular approach is infused with critical race theory (CRT). As Eden explains:
In “Transformative SEL,” “self-awareness” encompasses “identity,” with “identity” defined now through the lens of “intersectionality.” “Self-management” encompasses “agency,” with “agency” defined through “resistance” and “transformative/justice-oriented” citizenship. “Transformative SEL” also embraces “culturally relevant/responsive” pedagogy. This approach was pioneered by Gloria Ladson-Billings, the professor who brought Critical Race Theory to K-12 education.
Both Montpelier and the Lincoln Cottage are owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns 27 historic sites around the country. Diversity and inclusion are two of their core values, and their Black Lives Matter statement asserts that historic preservation must “actively advance justice and equity” and “confront and address structural racism within our own institutions.” The Trust has $412 million in assets. The U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Secretary of the Interior serve on their board, and they lobby to influence how taxpayer preservation funds are spent.
Another notable organization within the space is the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), an alliance of 35,000 museums and museum professionals. The AAM also engages in advocacy efforts with policymakers, the press, and the public. They believe that museums should not just depict and preserve history, but also “champion an anti-racist movement” to create a “more just and equitable world.” Promoting diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) and anti-racism is one of their four strategic priorities. The alliance recently assembled a task force of museum leaders, co-chaired by Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch, to embed DEAI practices across the industry. The resulting report begins: “DEAI is integral to excellence in museum practice. FULL STOP.” The report further recommends that leaders and museum experts shift away from “white-dominant characteristics of perfection, risk aversion, and conflict avoidance.”
At the end of the report, the task force endorses additional resources, including Montpelier’s and the National Trust’s guidelines for teaching slavery and engaging descendants (which encompasses anyone who feels “connected to the work the institution is doing, whether or not they know of a genealogical connection”). In those guidelines, Montpelier and the National Trust contend,
For institutions that interpret slavery, it is not enough simply to discuss the humanity and contributions of the enslaved. It is imperative that these institutions also unpack and interrogate white privilege and supremacy and systemic racism.
Influential individuals and corporations are supporting these groups with considerable resources. The AAM’s DEAI working group was co-chaired by a representative of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which in 2020 launched a $250 million Monuments Project “to reimagine and rebuild commemorative spaces and transform the way history is told in the United States.” The Excellence in DEAI report by the task force was made possible by Mellon, Alice C. Walton, and the Ford Foundation. McKinsey & Company acted as a pro-bono partner to produce the AAM’s Strategic Framework that prioritizes DEAI and anti-racism. The National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund also received funding from Ford, Mellon, and others, including George Soros’s Open Society Foundations.
Museum leaders and employees are exploiting the symbolic value of the sites under their stewardship. The chairman of the board at Montpelier has remarked that people go there to “worship” a president and a document, and that Montpelier should “leverage the meaning that [Montpelier] holds for the nation and for the world,” “reinterpret an iconic institution,” and “challenge its history.” Montpelier’s longstanding director of archaeology reportedly said that he “had no interest in honoring a ‘dead white president and a dead white president’s Constitution,’” and “that he needed to act ‘less like a bulldozer and more like a termite that undermined a building’s foundation, destroying it from within before tearing it down.’”
At an annual conference hosted by the American Association for State and Local History, participants were brainstorming about how to protect Critical Race Theory in classrooms. Noelle Trent from the National Civil Rights Museum encouraged her peers to subvert parents and legislatures by establishing partnerships with educators to teach CRT at museums through field trips and guest speakers.
These comments are revealing of the ideological capture of America’s museums and historic sites. Museum leaders are comfortable having such relatively public conversations because they are confident the vast majority of people in the room share their political views. Biased colleges and universities have been churning out graduates with museum studies and archaeology degrees for some time, and we are now experiencing the impact of those efforts.
Museums and historic sites are taking advantage of America’s trust to teach our children radical ideologies. Telling the complete story of America doesn’t mean we ignore our shortcomings, but it also doesn’t mean we gloss over our triumphs. Those triumphs include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the ensuing “government for which philosophy has been searching, and humanity been sighing, from the most remote ages.” Demoralizing our children will at best make them indifferent to our country’s demise, and at worst ready revolutionaries in the project of tearing it down. That is what is at stake here.
This piece originally appeared in The American Conservative