Saturday, February 26, 2011

Living up to Ourselves

I'd been to the American History museum once before. I don't remember the time of year, so I don't know whether it was impending heat prostration or frostbite that drove us into the shelter of the huge front hall. I remember a silver flag. I remember crowds of people. I remember being profoundly unimpressed.

It looks like an air conditioner the size of a city block. 
I wasn't optimistic when I came back. This building has a powerful case of the uglies. I'd much rather look at the Art Deco EPA across the street - but in I went, and found myself in a hall that did nothing to dispel the impression of a 70s office building on steroids. Behind glass on either side of the hall were random items, a hodge-podge of the detritus of history. From an anti-stamp act teapot to pop-culture icon C-3PO, the items were presented without logic or coherence. More moving was the broken school bus window from integration riots. The fire hats were hilarious, the missionary quilt was touching - but the display so resembled a high-school trophy case that I had to struggle to muster emotion.

Continuing through the downstairs I came upon the Hall of Invention. Here there was more coherence - colors, vertical and horizontal displays, mixtures of text and objects - but there was still more to see than to do. You're targeting this toward the young and celebrating the creative and analytical process that leads to inventions like Kevlar and folding strollers. Why not let the museum-goers experience the problem-solving? Have them push an old-style stroller and ask what might be inconvenient about it! You have the favorite toys of celebrated inventors - but under glass. Perhaps I'd have a more charitable opinion if I had a chance to go through the Spark Lab, but it was full of small children (a good sign) and I didn't want to increase the chances of my trampling someone.

Descartes "De Homine" - Latin for "Pat the Bunny"
That was another problem I had with the museum's lighting. If it wasn't lunch-period fluorescent, it was so dim that I had to practically stick my head into the text-heavy exhibits to read the tags - stumbling over the smaller museum-goers and obstructing the view of the larger ones. I can understand the need for dim lighting in the paper engineering exhibit, but it's still unfortunate. Maybe I should just get my eyes checked. Anyway, it was a small, delightful display about to extract three dimensions from two, and about how we've always loved a pop-up book. Even Descartes wrote one, who knew.

Not all of the smaller exhibits were so coherent. Trying to find my way to the escalators I came up against a small wall showcasing the history of.. the "Maid of Cotton" beauty pageant. What? Why? Perhaps it has some greater significance to people who aren't me, like the packed room displaying Julia Child's kitchen and stage set. It was a strikingly ordinary kitchen, but from the videos of her show playing all around the room, she seems like a pretty awesome lady.

The elevators at last! Up on the third floor, trying to find my way, I came across Stephen Colbert's portrait staring patriotically into... the freight elevator. At least the curatorial staff seems to have a sense of humour about their building's terrible design.

So it's been a hundred and fifty years since our country's most serious attempt at suicide, and any museum that touches history at all has got something up about it. The Museum of American History can hardly be outdone - Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life has plastered pictures of his top hat all over the subway and the exhibit has raided many of the museum's other collections to try and present a complete portrait of the president. Using objects to present history is trickier when describing an individual than a culture, I think, but there are some gems - like a pocket watch in whose workings the watchmakers appear to have carried out a graffiti war. But, as with so many exhibits on Lincoln, the president's own words wind up dominating the narrative. He's articulate, dry, and self-deprecating - his writing has the idiosyncratic cadences of the autodidact combined with the terseness of a man who has actually had to make things work rather than merely comment on them. I thought at first that his "railsplitter" political persona might be disingenuous for a man who has (at that point) spent the better part of his life at law than at manual labor, but he has in word as well as deed a streak of relentless practicality. He dubbed himself and his wife "the long and short of it", and the museum's exhibit of both their costumes shows the accuracy of that characterization.

 The exhibit loops a History Channel special on slavery and emancipation, trying to get into our heads what it meant when we ceased to be a slave society. 3 times the value of manufacturing held in human beings! 50 times the federal budget! How do we properly understand that? "Eeeeaaagh! I DON'T need to see that!" proclaimed a young boy, recoiling from a battlefield image of bodies bloating. Score one for history, if it still retains the power to horrify.

Out of the Lincoln exhibit, and into the permanent exhibit on the presidency. This was rather less well put-together, with a propensity to indulge in enthusiastic generalizations like "Americans are wary of pomp and circumstance" and "The President is America's leading man!" Three kids jostled behind the photo-op podium where you can pretend to address the nation. "The three knuckleheads for President," sighed a woman I assumed to be their mother. "Sure, why not?"

My feet ached and my brain throbbed with the beginning of an information headache*, but I suppose I** can't really visit this museum and not check and see if our flag is, in fact, still there. Yup, it is. Bombarded by time and age instead of British guns, the ragged, mammoth banner now occupies pride of place in a newly designed exhibit space. Though its constant use in the museum's promotional materials makes it seems like the apotheosis of American history's knicknack collection, in the flesh (well, cloth) it really does have a certain majesty. A montage of flag-waving images loops at the end - from new citizens clutching pocket-sized flags to WWI doughboys riding giddily off to Europe  Set (of course) to the National Anthem, the video is moderately successful in a relatively decent goal: to make Americans proud of the country that's worth being proud of. No images of the flag appear in negative or embarrassing contexts - at protests and blazoned on t-shirts is as far from hagiographical as it will stray. (And now you have the song in your head - the only song in the world that actually works better as a national anthem than it does as a drinking song.)

There's not necessarily anything wrong with that. What's praiseworthy should be praised. The danger is that we should come to believe that praiseworthy is all we've got, and that American flag never signified to anyone what the Fourth of July did to Frederick Douglass. Fortunately, the American History museum is incubating some of the collections of African American History and Culture, and there're few commentaries more horrifying or more hopeful on the US's potential as a nation. Currently they're displaying the collection of the Kinseys, and while the exhibit takes a positively medieval tone toward its patrons, the combination of art, document, and artifact is strikingly well-done. Rather than a litany of old sorrows and old hates, it celebrates the accomplishments of men and women, free and slave, throughout US history.

In addition to the heroes of the past, the exhibit includes chilling evidence of what it meant to be a slave society. A bill of sale for William Johnson. A letter describing the domestic talents of one Frances Crawford, mentioning "She does not know that she is to be sold". A newspaper ad for two runaways, saying that anyone "may kill or destroy said slaves."

Can you read that unmoved, knowing that they're talking about you? Knowing you're doing the talking? We have to face up to both if we're going to be America. The Museum of American History could be an important part of that process - and it's working on it. I guess that's all the best of us can say.

* Like an ice cream headache, but without delicious chocolate.

**Especially not as a St. John's graduate!

Place: The Smithsonian Museum of American History
Pros: Imposes a measure of coherence on a cluttered past.
Cons: Hasn't yet transcended its attic-like nature.
Definitely Check Out: Lincoln's patent model. 
Rating: 3-8/10 objects


  1. The whole building is a giant metaphor for Americans' own sense of our history. Judy Garland beside bussing: why not?

  2. Decrease number of posts per page? Also, new post soon?