In a tense political climate, with budgets being cut sharply and Congress watching the Smithsonian Institution and every other govern-ment program like a hawk, the secretary of the Smithsonian felt he had no choice but to insist that the head of one of the institution's divisions keep the controversial views of a prominent researcher on his staff quiet.

After all, he realized, the researcher's work could be perfect fodder for "ill-wishers" who would seize upon it as proof that the Smithsonian was cut off from the mainstream of American thinking, and a skeptical and peevish Congress would have an open invitation to squeeze the institution's budget yet again.Far better not to publish this work, the secretary urged in a letter, lest it be read in Congress "by any representative of the numberless constituents, whose dearest religious beliefs are so wounded in a government publication."

Thus was business done between Washington's cultural institutions and the government 100 years ago: Congress barely had to rattle its saber for the Smithsonian to quake.

Has anything changed since the day in 1897 that secretary Samuel P. Langley wrote those words, leaving no doubt that fear of Congress was the crucial element in setting the Smithsonian's agenda?

By some measures, things have lately grown worse.

A spate of cancellations and quickly retailored exhibitions - on subjects as diverse as slave life on Southern plantations, the history of lynching, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the theories of Freud - has raised tough questions about how the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, and by implication other cultural institutions, now go about their business.

Exhibitions are being reformulated or repackaged or simply dropped in response to complaints from just about anyone - from staff members of the presenting institutions to members of the general public who claim some interest in the subject.

What is going on in Washington? Does every exhibition have to pass a test, guaranteeing that it will not bother anyone, before anyone is allowed to see it? Looking at the crowds snaking around the National Gallery of Art waiting to see Vermeer last month, it has begun to seem as if the only thing that can go on display without incident in the shadow of the Capitol these days is a 17th-century Dutch painter.

Get any closer to the present, or to America, and you're certain to offend someone. And fear of offending someone - anyone - now seems to govern the cultural climate of Washington far more than the presentation of ideas.

Indeed, there is little or no debate on just how the nation's history should be presented to the public. How balanced a view of history should publicly supported institutions have? Whose version of history should prevail when views differ? And just what is the point of historical exhibitions today, in a media-saturated age in which simply presenting a revered object is rarely thought to be enough? Can an airplane, a manuscript, or a 60-year old cartoon tell a story all by itself?

There is always an explanation by the authorities to justify each change or cancellation, and it is always presented as a defense of reason, not an attack upon it.

Still, a picture has emerged of the national cultural institutions as increasingly ready to bow to pressure from almost anyone, a neat reflection of an America divided by special-interest groups of every stripe.

A century ago, the report that so concerned the Smithsonian secretary - James Mooney's pioneering research that dared to suggest the religious practices of American Indians could be compared with those of Christianity - was, in the end, not suppressed.

But in 1995, pressured by critics in and out of Congress, the Smithsonian startled the world by canceling a long-planned interpretive exhibit marking the 50th anniversary of the flight of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima.

The Smithsonian exhibition as originally planned raised the question of whether the decision to drop the bomb was correct, a subject historians have debated with considerable vigor.

The Smithsonian could have presented all sides of the issue, but it chose instead to deny that there was more than one, and mounted a more modest show, "The Enola Gay," still on view, in which portions of the restored plane are displayed and the mission is honored uncritically.

Shortly thereafter, the Smithsonian postponed an exhibition on an even more painful subject, the Vietnam War. And just in the last few weeks, the Smithsonian's neighbor, the Library of Congress, put off a major exhibition on Sigmund Freud after finding itself caught in the crossfire between Freudian analysts and scholars, who were helping to mount the exhibition, and what might be called anti-Freudians, who complained that Freud's views had been superseded.

This time the challenge came not from people angry that the exhibition, "Freud: Conflict and Culture," was critical but fearful that it would not be critical enough.

There's more. Only a few days after the Freud postponement, the library abruptly dismantled an exhibition entitled "Back of the Big House: The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation," which contained photographs of slave quarters and work areas in Southern plantations. The library acted after staff members, many of whom were black, complained that they found the notion of pictures of slaves offensive.

The desire not to offend the sensibilities of blacks was also behind the library's decision to remove four anti-lynching cartoons from an exhibition of graphics currently on view, "New Growth: Recent Acquisitions in Caricature, Cartoon and Illustration."

As stunning as the removal of the drawings themselves was the deletion from the exhibition's text of a quote from a critic who, viewing a show of the same cartoons in 1935, wrote, "If it upsets your complacency on the subject it will have been successful." The Library of Congress may seek to do many things today, but upsetting anyone's complacency is apparently not among them.

The Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian was the result of a mistake in intention, saysI. Michael Heyman, who as secretary now heads the 16-museum consortium that the Smithsonian has become.

"Bringing off a celebration and commemoration of the 50th anniversary and doing a historical analysis at the same time is very hard; it's exceedingly difficult to do this and be fair to the millions of veterans who believe that dropping the bomb saved their lives," he says. When asked if reinterpreting history is inevitably incompatible with commemoration, he replied, "If it is as emotional an issue as this one, yes."

At the Library of Congress, the excuses are different. Budget cuts and nothing else derailed the Freud exhibition, says Dr. James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, who said last week that the cancellation was "financial, pure and simple; this is not a political matter like the Enola Gay."

Billington said 10 days ago that the library would mount a Freud exhibition after all, but not until 2000, a delay so long it gave the anti-Freud forces the clear sense that they had brought the library to its knees. But last week, after meeting with the curator, Michael Roth, Billington moved the exhibit forward again to 1998.

"Back of the Big House" is another story. The library has had a long and troubled relationship with its black employees, and a class-action suit in which the library has agreed to pay $8.5 million to compensate for alleged discrimination is now under appeal.

Race relations remain uneasy, and perhaps it is not surprising that some employees said they found it offensive to walk through a temporary exhibition area outside the library's conference rooms and cafeteria and be greeted by photographs of slaves. Fearing an escalation of tensions, the library ordered the dismantling of the exhibition only hours after it had gone up.

The title didn't help: Employee slang for the library has long been "the big house." But the outcry over the abrupt shuttering of "Back of the Big House" was such that the exhibition was quickly taken over by the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, the District of Columbia's main public library, where it reopened last month, intact except for a sanitized title: "The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation."

As the exhibition, which is on view through today, tells the story, it's the plantation owners, not the slaves, who lack humane qualities. The slaves are shown as maintaining dignity and creating an indigenous culture under horrendous circumstances.

The exhibition was organized by John Michael Vlach, a George Washington University historian who set out to demonstrate the richness and complexity of life that occurred in the portion of plantations - the slave areas - that most historians have ignored.

Originally put together as a traveling show, it has spent most of the last year moving from one local historical society to another, raising nary an objection.

When the Smithsonian canceled the Enola Gay exhibition last year, the decision was hailed by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had complained that the original plans were a result of "a certain political correctness seeping in and distorting and prejudicing the Smithsonian's exhibits." He added: "Political correctness may be O.K. in some faculty lounge, but the Smithsonian is a treasure that belongs to the American people and it should not become a plaything for left-wing ideologies."

It is an odd notion indeed, particularly from a former history professor, that looking at both sides of President Truman's decision to drop the bomb is evidence of "left-wing ideology."

But Gingrich's comments, made in a news conference at the same time that the Smithsonian was replacing the original exhibition with what Heyman called "one every American can be proud of," force Americans to confront a crucial question: What do we think the point of historical exhibitions is today?

It's not just the Liberty Bell. In a society saturated by entertainment, museums are increasingly fearful of presenting objects by themselves, worried that they have insufficient allure.

Multimedia are believed necessary to keep younger audiences engaged, and the institutions themselves from appearing stodgy. The attempt to present objects in a context, as part of a historical narrative, in itself means that a certain amount of interpretation is inevitable.

And going hand in hand with this is the effect on museums of newer forms of historical scholarship. In the past generation, research has become considerably more inclusive as, for example, when scholars look at the roles that women and minority groups have played in the nation's past.

"For a long time, the crucial issue was the authenticity of the relics on display," says Neil Harris, the Morton Professor of History at the University of Chicago, who has written extensively about the role of history museums in contemporary culture. "Now it has become the significance and representativeness of the experience being evoked, and the messages implied." To explain has become today as much a part of the mission of the history museum as to display.

But to offer even one explanation is to suggest that there may be others - and that is what sent Gingrich, the American Legion, the Air Force Association and others who objected to the Enola Gay exhibition into a tailspin.

They were operating from an older view: That museums such as the Smithsonian are merely custodians of artifacts, and that these artifacts can be presented in a simple and objective way, as icons that will lead visitors to absolute truth.

To the opponents of the original exhibition, the Enola Gay is a trophy in the same way that the plane flown by the Wright Brothers is a trophy. To present it with any kind of comment other than words of honor is to obscure its importance, as well as to insult the memory of American troops.

Yet many historians assert that complete objectivity is a fallacy. There is no real way, they argue, to present an object purely as an object. Museums select objects and by implication anoint them. Showing an airplane like the Enola Gay without comment is, in fact, a comment in itself, for it raises the object to an exalted level.

"There are no value-free exhibitions," says Harris. "These senators may think that the textbooks they grew up with were value-free, but not at all. Look at what they left out. It was a historical narrative without women, for example. It was all interpretive."

Until very recently, said Mike Wallace, a historian who teaches at John Jay College in New York and has written on attitudes toward history today, "History museums never connected with the present. One of the things that freaks people out now is that history museums are not irrelevant. People want to think of history as over and done with, but it's not. It's a set of events in a matrix moving into the present."

Museum curators, then, are responding in part to changes they see around them as historical scholarship itself evolves. In 1987, the Smithsonian presented (with surprisingly little controversy) an exhibition entitled "A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution," which viewed the internment of Japanese citizens in the United States during World War II in a highly critical way.

Four years later, the National Museum of American Art, a division of the Smithsonian, mounted "The West as America," which presented celebrated art, like the work of Frederic Remington, less as a depiction of historical fact than as a contributor to a 19th-century myth of American manifest destiny.

This revisionist view of American history, which saw the events these paintings portrayed, including battles with the Indians, as something less than wholly admirable, unleashed a furor unmatched until the Enola Gay.

Why did one exhibit get away scot-free, and the others ignite bitter battles? The Smithsonian's exhibition on the West and the Enola Gay exhibition had one thing in common: Both questioned certain pieties. And at a time when the country was moving steadily to the right, political pressures were mounting to present history in the traditional, unquestioning way, as a battle between noble American might and the decadent forces of darkness.

Generations have learned about the opening of the West and the dropping of the atomic bomb in precisely those terms. But not many will make that kind of case for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, an unfortunate chapter of United States history that few Americans of any political conviction are inclined to defend.

Because Japanese internment was such a widely renounced event, that exhibition coincided with one of those rare moments in which it became politically acceptable to present a negative view in which the negative view was, in effect, the patriotic view.

Even so, some scholars doubt that the internment exhibition could be proposed today. The atmosphere, says Mike Wallace, is inclined "toward the creation of an official history, toward Congress deciding what is and is not correct history."

If there is exaggeration in this view, there is certainly an increasing sense that exhibitions dependent on government money - which is to say virtually everything at the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, as well as those elsewhere supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts (themselves endangered today) - stand a better chance of succeeding if they steer far away from political controversy. Critical projects need not apply.

And that, of course, is the terrible risk in a time like this.

It is not that different viewpoints about the atomic bomb, or the architecture of plantations or the validity of Freud's ideas, are sup-pressed. Indeed, the paradox of the battles over such exhibitions is that they have focused more, not less, public attention on the issues themselves.

The great risk comes when curators do not propose projects they fear will not win approval, and thus debate is not even allowed to begin.

Society has ways of dealing with censorship by outside forces, as the controversy over the Enola Gay issue proved. What it cannot do is protect the idea that has not been allowed to hatch - whose creators have censored it themselves, out of a belief that proposing it would be futile.

There is no question that, in Washington at least, such a time has already arrived. Curators at the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress operate entirely in a realm of politics now, with projects driven more by the absence of their power to offend than by the strength of their ideas.