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Let me praise the History of Philanthropy blog. Curated by Benjamin Soskis of George Mason University and Maribel Morey of Clemson, the blog has been in existence for just over six months. I’ve found it interesting and fair, and successful in its effort to be a locus for people seriously interested in philanthropic history.

It was through this post on the History of Philanthropy blog that I learned that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is planning to have a section on philanthropic history. They held a conference in December, which featured two donors to the exhibit—Bill Gates and David Rubenstein—and David Rockefeller, who is apparently spry enough to travel to conferences at age 100.

(Let us congratulate David Rockefeller on reaching his centennial, outliving his famous grandfather by three years.)[1]

The Smithsonian has a temporary exhibit, with a permanent one scheduled to be opened on late November this year. They have asked for suggestions. The anonymous author of the History of Philanthropy blog post has some: how much will the exhibit be shaped to reflect the passions of Gates and Rubinstein? “What sorts of regional, ethnic and religious traditions will be represented? How will the traditions of mass giving and large-scale philanthropy be balanced?”

Here’s an even more basic question: what will the average visitor to this exhibit learn about the history of philanthropy in America? I suspect the answer will be: not very much.

You may recall the museum wars of the 1990s about whether or not a politically correct view of American history would be foisted on the public. That was the 1990s. The succeeding generation of curators has a more blasé view: history consists of presenting Neat Stuff to the public, because there were no great men or women in history, and showing Neat Stuff—you know, like Seinfeld’s puffy shirt—is necessary so that the families from Cornpone, Kansas visiting the Mall will gorge themselves in this buffet of intellectual sweets and load up on goodies in the gift shop. Andrew Ferguson explains this approach in a fine piece from the Weekly Standard in 2008.

There was some of this display of stuff on display at the Smithsonian’s philanthropy conference. The Smithsonian has a suit that Benjamin Franklin wore in 1778. OK, that is cool, but what does this suit tell me about Benjamin Franklin’s giving? What does a boot passed around that fire fighters in Fairfax County, Virginia used to collect donations teach me?

Part of the temporary exhibit is about giving in the Victorian era. One of the exhibits is a gown that Mary Eno Pinchot wore in 1877. I suppose this gown is supposed to represent All Victorian Women. The implicit assumption in showing this gown is that the women in the 19th century were interchangeable parts, and one was just the same as another.

I know a fair amount about Victorian philanthropy, and I’ve never heard of Mary Eno Pinchot. I dutifully searched, and all I can tell you is that she was the mother of Gifford Pinchot, who was a founder of the U.S. Forest Service and a governor of Pennsylvania. Put “Mary Eno Pinchot” in brackets, and nearly all of the entries are about her notorious grandniece, Mary Eno Pinchot Meyer, a paramour of John F. Kennedy who died mysteriously in 1964. I have no idea why the Smithsonian thinks Mary Pinchot is significant.

The Smithsonian will never ask me what a museum devoted to philanthropy should be, but if they did, here is what I’d tell them:

There should be a core section of significant philanthropists. If you had sections devoted to Stephen Girard, Lewis Tappan, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller Sr., John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Henry Ford, George Eastman, the Guggenheim family, Julius Rosenwald, J. Paul Getty, and Bill Gates, that would be a good start. These exhibits should include artifacts and video clips when possible.

(The British Pathe newsreel collection, which is on YouTube, has very interesting newsreels about John D. Rockefeller Sr. and John D. Rockefeller Jr.)

I don’t know the best way to cover charity in America, but my guess would be a rotating exhibit covering one area of charity in depth would be better than a permanent exhibit.

Finally, one peculiar portion of the Smithsonian’s exhibit is a kiosk with all the signatories of the Giving Pledge and searchable statements about why they agreed to pledge their fortunes. Here’s a better idea: why not have oral histories, with an interviewer as good as Brian Lamb or Russ Roberts, talking to billionaires for an hour or so? Make these histories freely available over the Internet. If you wanted to start with all the signers of the Giving Pledge, I wouldn’t have a problem with that. Bill Gates has talked about his philanthropic views at length, but I don’t know that David Rubenstein has received the same treatment. I bet an interview with Rubenstein would be quite valuable.

I don’t think a “National Museum of Philanthropy” would be very interesting. A National Museum of Philanthropists, however, could be quite significant.

NOTE; I spent two mostly enjoyable years working for the now-defunct Wilson Quarterly, which was the magazine of the Woodrow Wilson Center, the Smithsonian’s think tank. I also have published several short articles and one long one in Air and Space.

[1] Fun fact about David Rockefeller: Do you know he has a doctorate in economics and one of his advisers was F.A. Hayek?

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