By James A. Kidney
There is a battle going on in Washington. No, not health care. Not Democrats and Republicans, either; at least, not the current crop. It is being fought at two corners of Constitution Avenue and 14th Street, N.W. It is a battle in which we all are winners.
I am speaking of the “battle” between the newly energized Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the nine-month-old Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture. Don’t let anyone tell you there is not competition among the Smithsonians in Washington. As a volunteer at both of the aforementioned, I can assure you that, although it is friendly, these museums across 14th Street from each other know they are competing. It is a grand contest.
African-American opened last September with a speech from President Obama and has been pretty much packed ever since — deservedly so. It is a wonderful creation, recounting the tragic, even evil, parts of our difficult racial history while also celebrating the achievements. It does so without hectoring or self-regard. It is a display that a national museum should aspire to be. We wrote an enthusiastic review when it opened, and our enthusiasm has not diminished.
One inevitable result of a spanking new museum is that the 52-year-old museum across the street celebrating other parts of American history started to look a little dull and stale. (Note: As I tell visitors, African-American history is warp and woof part of American history as much as the history celebrated across the street. Both buildings display the history of all of us.) There are a lot of old permanent exhibits on our many wars, fun displays of old cars and trucks in the transportation exhibit, and interesting artifacts and movies about the duties of the presidency. The First Lady Gowns exhibit is refreshed with each new first lady, and is very popular, but hardly inspiring. Even the new exhibits on the history of American business and places of invention are devoted to discreet subjects that are often intriguing or familiar, but distinct from the experiences of many of us and inspiring only in the narrowest sense of admiring the achievements of others. Don’t get me wrong. All of these are interesting, well-presented, and worth the trip. They just don’t do a very good job, or only a partial job, of capturing what is America.
A major strength of the African-American museum is that it tells the inspirational story of struggle and success among a large group of Americans. Visitors share in that inspirational journey regardless of race or citizenship.
Until this week, American History lacked that spirit of struggle and success among our peoples as a nation. There was little evidence of our nation’s history as a cacophony of cultures and politics competing since our founding to decide what makes America. One could hardly discern that our nation always has been a continuing experiment in ways to make our people free, engaged and successful. Rather, the museum presented a dissected history developed from bits of interesting, but unrelated, displays and events.
No longer. As this Washington Post article describes, a new exhibit collection opening this week revels in the diversity of thought, culture and politics that identifies the best of this nation since before its founding. It does so in an intelligent, non-worshipful manner that recognizes the flaws in our founding and subsequent history but, as with African-American,
does not seek to rub our noses in them. Most importantly, these new exhibits succeed in identifying the throbbing, restless nature of America and Americans as part of a unified theme of who constitutes our nation over the last three centuries. As with the African-American Museum, the ugly is identified, but the unity and the good are celebrated. At last, there is inspiration at the American History Museum along with important records and events.
There are two permanent exhibits (intended to remain on display, though occasionally freshened, for 20 or 25 years). “American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith” focuses on the continuing invention and reinvention of political America, from the Founders through the present day. “Many Voices, One Nation” looks at the cultural diversity of America and how the country addressed this diversity — sometimes by inclusion, and other times by separation.
The visitor repeatedly is invited to engage with the exhibits, and not just with simple-minded interactive computers designed to keep kids and dull-witted visitors awake. For example, “American Democracy” makes it clear that the infant United States was ruled only by landed white males. The exhibit returns again and again to the theme of “who is a citizen?” and the serial battles for voting and other rights through the present day.
When I visited the pre-opening, I heard several fellow volunteers note how often the issues identified and the vigor with which opposing sides expressed their views reminded them of today’s divisive politics and angry leaders. It is comforting to see how America has been through tumultuous times before — not just the Civil War — over many of the issues that divide us today. The “American Democracy” exhibit reminds us that such peaceful, boisterous tumult is part of being an American, and that in the past, at least, the country usually has found, if not the best direction, a fruitful, if temporary, peace.
A difficulty facing all museums is trying to be serious in the face of popular demands for the familiar or entertaining. A surprising number of visitors to American History, for example, still ask if
Fonzie’s jacket from “Happy Days,” the MASH tent or Seinfeld’s puffy shirt are on display. They are disappointed when told no, they went off display years ago. They frown when told Dorothy’s ruby red shoes have been taken off for repair (they will be back), but regain their smile when told the shoes have been replaced with Indiana Jones’s bullwhip and hat. Museums know they have to maintain such appeal to stay relevant and alive.
Perhaps partly for that reason, and as is typical with Smithsonian exhibits around the Mall, not all is serious. There is, for example, a showcase of baseball, intended to illustrate one past time that unites many diverse cultures. It includes Stan Musial’s bat. (Wait. Baseball IS serious.) There is an interesting, if abbreviated, booklet that shows how new immigrants and African-Americans were dispersed through Chicago neighborhoods (or, rather, usually not dispersed). Many Voices includes a huge clock intended to animate American history long before anyone of thought of digital as other than working with your fingers. Some displays are playful, without sacrificing the serious intentions of the whole.
The new American History Museum exhibits were in the works well before the African-American Museum opened, but it is difficult to believe the curators did not absorb some lessons on presentation from the newer museum. Whatever the case, American History has received a much-needed shot of vitality and inspiration. Unlike African-American, you don’t need a reserved ticket to get into American History. If you plan to visit the city, be sure to include these exhibits on your trip. If you live around D.C., and, like me, tend to ignore the tourist sites until an out-of-town relative visits, don’t make that mistake. Devote a morning or afternoon to visiting American History.
Set aside the worries and arguments of today. Take some comfort that our current political turmoil is part of who we are. Celebrate our nation at the American History Museum soon.