Bringing History to the Masses

Last Saturday, finding myself at loose ends, I decided on a whim to go to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. I adore museums and I adore American history, so I thought it would be a good combination—and I was also interested to see how the museum would present America’s story to the incredibly diverse public that presumably passes through the Smithsonian’s museums. As the National Museum of American History, this place has something of the responsibility of defining how America sees itself, if that makes any sense. It’s how America perceives its own story. I was interested to see how a museum could reduce aspects of American history that—my first year of college has taught me—are incredibly nuanced and sometimes controversial down to a series of visually enticing displays. And, wow. It was an interesting experience.

By and large, I was pleasantly surprised by the degree to which the museum represented a diverse set of American experiences and a balanced view of politically controversial time periods such as the Cold War and Vietnam. I was expecting something along the lines of the elementary-school version of history where everything has a happy ending, and so it was refreshing not just to see the museum own up to issues such as how the government’s treatment of African-Americans cast its ideals of freedom and democracy into question for hundreds of years, how Native Americans were forcibly relocated from their homelands, or how women were systematically disenfranchised or relegated to housewife/”helper” roles. Of course, most of these concepts were presented in ways which ended in the eventual triumph of freedom and democracy and the presumption that the same issues of race, class and gender that have always plagued America do not persist. However, the overall historical narrative didn’t by any means gloss over those issues, and even incorporated some interesting stories that traditional sequences of events gloss over: the litany of Civil War battles I learned in 5th-, 8th-, and 11th-grade US history didn’t mention the role of women as spies for the Confederacy, or the role of male nurses in addition to their female counterparts like Clara Barton—but the museum’s Civil War section certainly did. I saw echoes of the classes I took last semester in displays on Cold War culture in the Nuclear Age or on the advent of the Pill and its role in the sexual revolution. I would never have dreamed, somehow, that I would see an entire wall of birth control pills in a national museum, alongside a copy of the Hair libretto—but there they were. At every stage in the museum, I deeply regretted having neglected to bring my camera.

But, because of the nature of this blog, and the nature of me, and the nature of my single-issue political focus, I have to say that the most incredible thing I saw at the museum was its Archives Center’s display—which commemorated Stonewall and Pride Month in general. One case contained some pictures from Stonewall and some issues of One magazine (considered to be the first pro-gay magazine, founded by members of the Mattachine Society, and the subject of a landmark 1958 obscenity case), which were particularly cool. Another case contained some documents from a particular researcher’s AIDS oral history project. It was wonderful and incredibly validating from my perspective to see that such an august institution saw LGBT history as part of America’s history, and I didn’t even let the disgusted comments of a couple standing behind me as I pored over the exhibit (“Why are they showing this stuff? This is ridiculous”) irritate me, just because I was so glad that the museum saw fit to feature this aspect of our country’s history, this group of its citizens.

But, on the other hand, I had my substantial share of issues with the military history exhibit—which came down overwhelmingly on the side of those who had thought all the wars were a good idea. This is natural when you’re talking about the Revolution or the Civil War or World War II, the so-called “morally justified” wars, but somehow the logic of a one-sided approach seems harder to justify in light of the others. I skimmed through the wars of expansion section in my desire to reach the 20th century, but I was a little bit surprised that the (admittedly brief) World War I display said nothing about that war’s large conscientious objector movement; I was also surprised by the lack of criticism of anti-communist hysteria. There was a picture of McCarthy but little explanation of it; one blurb said that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were arrested and tried in the course of a “legitimate search for spies.” That struck me as bizarre: while I know that many historians these days are saying that at least Julius was likely guilty, it seemed strange to ignore the degree to which the Rosenbergs’ trial—and, indeed, the use of the death penalty—was motivated by the absolute craziness that characterized much of the politicking during that period. The Vietnam exhibit did a good job juxtaposing the actual land war of military strategy with the social war going on at home, but while it addressed criticisms of actions such as the killing of protesters at Kent State, it didn’t really explain why people might have opposed the war, or even so much as caption the litany of iconic images of peace signs and Woodstock and dead and dying Vietnamese people that covered a wall. Yes, the vast majority of people to come through the museum probably have some familiarity with the events of Vietnam—statistically speaking, a good number of people to come through were probably alive in the ’60s and ’70s and aware of the events as they happened. But someone my age—or one of the great many younger children in tour groups whom I saw that day—doesn’t know these narratives, and may not even have a preconceived notion of who was on what side or what the social discourse was like during the Vietnam period. If this museum is telling the American story, it has a duty to explain.

On the other hand, though, things just felt progressively weirder to me when I entered the next section of the exhibit, about the post-Vietnam wars. There was a display from the first Gulf War, with uniforms of desert camo, that threw around jargon like “liberate,” “coalition forces,” and “Support the Troops” that were eerily reminiscent of our present war. And then, in an adjacent display, a thick girder of twisted and rusted steel hung suspended from the ceiling—it was a piece of the World Trade Center. Schoolchildren and adults alike crowded around it, all telling each other (for the umpteenth time, no doubt) where they were on 9/11. One girl was clamoring for attention so that she could tell her family how her teacher had known someone who had died in the WTC, and it was just so mind-boggling bizarre to see the style of historical distance imposed by the exhibit juxtaposed with the living memory of a 16-year-old. The other display cases in the room enshrined photographs and military memorabilia from Afghanistan and Iraq, and I was reminded again of a question I thought about all last semester: how do you historicize events that exist within recent memory, that in fact are still developing? We still don’t know everything surrounding the Bush administration’s strategy, reasoning, and operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we likely won’t for several years. When I looked at one display of a collection of anti-Bush political buttons and recognized some that I have in my reasonably vast collection, I had a brief sense of how my parents must feel about endless documentaries and nostalgia and exhibits about the period of their youth. But I’m still in my youth, and these wars are still going on, and it felt somehow unreasonable to place them in the context of an exhibit that told the stories of all the major wars in our nation’s history. Yes, on the one hand, there is no received narrative, like there is for the Revolution or the Civil War—the museum has the privilege of being able to truly tell the story anew as it thinks it should be told. But political tensions still run high; we certainly still do not know all the facts. The labels on the artifacts were necessarily brief, the captions depoliticized. But how much information does that truly offer, when the scholars who wrote the text of the exhibit don’t have the freedom to present any complete sense of the facts?

I truly believe that anyone who studies history has something like a solemn duty to educate the public—particularly if the historian in question is studying the history of the society/culture in which he or she lives. It is critical to remind the public of past mistakes, so that they are not repeated; it is critical, particularly in our modern period in which minority and underprivileged histories are emphasized in scholarship, to make sure that everyone’s stories are heard. It does us no good, for reductive example’s sake, for something like LGBT history to be an emerging hot new subfield in academia if no one outside the discipline has heard of Harvey Milk or Stonewall—and that’s why I was so excited to see the Pride Month/Stonewall anniversary display, and to note the care and respect and detail with which the exhibits described the history of minorities, women, immigrants, and working-class people that runs counter to the history of the privileged who serve in government and wrote the histories for hundreds of years. But while some of my preconceptions were dispelled by my day at the museum, others were not—and at times I felt myself very much back in the black-and-white world of grade-school social studies, frustrated by what was left unsaid. Yes, it is difficult to be all things to all people, but to tell all stories, to represent all sides, and to showcase dissent—even if it is, say, anti-military—is truly the most patriotic course of action for America’s museum to take.

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