A WOMAN'S PLACE IS IN THE [WHITE HOUSE]: HOW THE SMITHSONIAN'S THE FIRST LADIES EXHIBIT MISREPRESENTS AMERICA'S WOMAN
In this thesis I explore the Smithsonian Institution’s (SI) changing first lady narratives through two exhibits and their catalogs. First, I examine the First Ladies Hall exhibit (1965) at the Museum of History and Technology through its catalog, establishing its first lady narrative as the traditional, ideal 1950s woman - a hostess and fashion icon. Then, I define SI’s modern first lady narrative as presented in the Smithsonian First Ladies Collection catalog (2014) and the First Ladies exhibit (2011) at the National Museum of American History (NMAH). Comparing the narratives of the 2014 catalog and 2011 exhibit to the 1965 exhibit, I argue that NMAH’s first lady narrative maintains the traditional first lady narrative of First Ladies Hall. In this thesis, I further argue that this narrow and outdated first lady narrative fails to reflect the complexities of the modern first lady as a public, political, and private figure who must balance each of these dimensions to meet expanding public expectations of her role. I use a site visit, blog posts, newspaper reviews, and an interview with the curator to explore the First Ladies exhibit and narrative in comparison with curator and designer goals and the standards of the modern educational museum. I find that the exhibit fails to meet curator and designer goals to present the modern, complex first lady; it thus fails to fulfill the duties of the modern museum to present a challenging narrative that allows visitors to critically reflect and form their own image of the first lady. Ultimately, I conclude that NMAH’s the First Ladies misrepresents the modern first lady and miseducates visitors on this influential and ever-growing role.
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