WASHINGTON — I. Michael Heyman’s opening days in 1994 as the first nonscientist to lead the Smithsonian Institution were spent confronting controversy over a planned exhibition of the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb.
Veterans groups, some historians and members of Congress fiercely protested the National Air and Space Museum’s planned display of the B-29 Enola Gay, saying it was too sympathetic to the Japanese. Heyman, who died on Saturday at age 81, eventually cancelled the exhibit — but still showed the plane in one of the most visited museums.
When five revisions of the exhibit script failed to satisfy critics, Heyman ordered a simple display in 1995 void of commentary, context or analysis of its role as a turning point during World War II when the U.S. dropped the bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945.
“I don’t believe that this is a glorification of nuclear weapons,” Heyman said at the time. “It says, ‘This is the Enola Gay. It dropped the bomb that ended the war.’ It doesn’t take a position on the morality of it.”
Still, the exhibit drew protests and arrests of anti-war activists when it finally opened.
Heyman, who had also been chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, a law professor and city planner, died at his Berkeley home after a long battle with emphysema. The Smithsonian and the university announced his death Monday.
John Cummins, who served as Heyman’s university chief of staff, said Heyman used his humor and long experience in academia to navigate controversies. Heyman had keen political sensibilities and knew how to handle competing interests, such as when he pushed affirmative action while raising money from parents who felt their children were being kept out of Berkeley by the policy, Cummins sa id.
“He had a bigger-than-life personality. He would say charm gets you everywhere,” Cummins said. “But at the same time, he was very smart, very articulate.”
Current Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough said Heyman was a “proud veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps” and had “tackled the tough controversy” over the Enola Gay.
During five years at the world’s largest museum and research complex, Heyman oversaw creation of its first website and an affiliations network that now includes 170 museums across the country. He secured funding to build the National Museum of the American Indian and a key $60 million donation for a National Air and Space Museum annex in northern Virginia.
“Heyman was unflinchingly optimistic about the Smithsonian’s ability to be a force for knowledge and inspiration in our society,” Clough said in a statement. He said Heyman’s signature program was a celebration of the Smithsonian’s 150th anniversary in 1996 with a major traveling exhibit, “America’s Smithsonian.”
He retired from the museum complex in 2000 after increasing philanthropic giving from $52 million in 1995 to $146 million in 1999. He also created a for-profit unit to manage the Smithsonian’s business activities.
A 2007 examination of the Smithsonian’s management and finances found that Heyman built a structure that significantly increased private contributions, though his successor, Lawrence Small, later took credit for record fundraising.
Heyman was a lawyer for the U.S. Department of the Interior when he was chosen to lead the Smithsonian as its first nonscientist secretary in its history. He was the institution’s 10th secretary since its founding in 1846, overseeing 16 museums, the National Zoo and a cluster of research centers at the time.
Heyman was born in New York City in 1930. He studied government at Dartmouth College and earned his law degree at Yale. In 1958 and 1959, he was chief law clerk to Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.
He joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1959 teaching law and city planning and went on to serve as chancellor of the school from 1980 to 1990. He is credited with increasing the diversity of undergraduate students and expanding private giving to the school by threefold. Heyman moved back to Berkeley in 2000 and was a professor emeritus in the law school.
“Mike Heyman was a great and inspiring leader whose vision helped shape the future of the Berkeley campus,” said university Chancellor Robert Birgeneau in a message to the campus. “Simply, he believed that Berkeley should be second to none, and open to all.”
A memorial service for Heyman will be held on campus, but the date hasn’t been set, the university said.