A civilisation for America: the art museum, public broadcasting and cultural segregation, 1968-1974
At Back to Civilisation: Kenneth Clark's television landmark at 40, United States.
17 - 18 Oct 2009.
As the first colour documentary series produced by the BBC, Kenneth Clark's thirteen-part history series Civilisation (1969) was a landmark in the history of British broadcasting. Yet its impact on public discourse was arguably greater in the United States, where the series was first screened at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington in late 1969, then in government offices and educational institutions across the country and finally on the new Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). At the NGA the screenings were part of director J. Carter Brown's attempt to engage socially excluded audiences in exploration of civic humanist ideals. This essay uses the phenomenal success of the series as a way into contemporary debates over the museum's role in society, and in particular its responsibility to address social inequalities, war and inter-racial strife. It considers the role of both the NGA and the Smithsonian in developing “neighbourhood museums” as well as new ways of displaying African art, two projects that coincided with Civilisation screenings. Are these to be understood as further examples of “museum outreach,” or did they in fact confirm rather than confront segregation? It concludes by considering Civilisation's use as a justification for public television's precarious existence under a hostile Nixon administration. A series that carefully avoided claims to comprehensiveness or smug visions of Whiggish progress was somehow prescribed as a means of improving American minds and soothing “hysterias” peddled by commercial television. In this fashion Americans made their own Civilisation. This appropriation necessitated critical thought about the museum and television as public resources, and in particular whether conflict over support for Vietnam, over the ills of the inner city and other crises had fatally shattered a unitary “American public.”
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