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Mall Politics: Surrounding the Washington Monument

Unfortunate news just in from the Smithsonian's Board of Regents, who decided Monday to put the proposed National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall at the foot of the hill leading up to the Washington Monument.

As the Post's Jackie Trescott detailed in a terrific piece , the Smithsonian had to decide whether to put the black history museum on one of the few remaining open spaces left on the Mall, or to do what Congress and virtually every urban planning group of any significance has repeatedly and strongly recommended: Start expanding the concept and definition of the Mall, creating new places in federal Washington for the nation to commemorate its history.

The Mall's next century will be one of pushing into some of the lands adjacent to the existing row of museums and memorials, and some good thinking has gone into figuring out where and how this can be done.

But none of that will happen as long as the process allows politicians and cultural royalty to keep squeezing more buildings onto the Mall. Between the World War II Memorial and the black history museum, the Washington Monument will now have large structures on two sides. It becomes only a matter of time before the monument is surrounded, its peak popping out above a cordon of other facilities.

Beyond the question of where to put the museum, the debate over the balkanization of American history now appears to be resolved in favor of slicing our past into ethnic bits. The Holocaust museum, which, though privately built and run sits on federal land, started this unfortunate trend, and now we have the Indian museum and the black museum and surely before long the Hispanic museum and perhaps an Asian museum. All of which leaves the American History museum as a big barn full of stuff without much in the way of any all-encompassing theme. Shouldn't the Smithsonian's job be to present and synthesize our history, to detail our past in all its glory and missteps, but also to help find the Unum in E Pluribus Unum? Instead, we get a celebration of separation, stepping away from exploring our common goals and needs.

The resulting institutions make little effort to reach out beyond their demographic slice of the nation. The Indian museum sees its mission as one of celebration, not the rigorous examination of the past that would justify spending federal tax dollars on a cultural institution. The best exhibits at the American History museum over the years have asked tough questions, presenting the past as it was and wondering whether and how it could have been better. Toward a more perfect union, as it were. Otherwise, we're just building a theme park of separate realities.

By Marc Fisher |  January 30, 2006; 4:37 PM ET
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Comments

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two thoughts on the African-American museum: 1) while I'm sensitive to the concern about balkanization, it is important to recognize that the history of African-Americans is one of separation; to pretend otherwise, ignores our history. 2) I agree that the mall is too crowded but knowing most non-African Americans' museum habits, I worry that a venue off the beaten path (e.g., Banneker) would end up as a museum ghetto. In order for it to be "in the mainstream" it needs to be in the thick of things. Perhaps the Arts and Industries Bldg or some other nearby structure would have worked better, but even a new building on the mall beats the isolation that one of the other sites would have brought.

Posted by: ralph | January 30, 2006 5:44 PM

First, let's remember the basic paradox that this was a free country supported largely by slave labor. This was more than a "misstep".

Then, let's consider the actual alternatives that were presented for the museum site: (1) The Arts and Industries Building would provide a central location on the Mall appropriate for African Americans' role in this nation's history, but its architecture bears no relationship to African American culture. (2) The chosen site is appropriate as a central location, and the museum's architectural profile could be designed to complement rather than detract from the Washington Monument. (3) The site near the Tidal Basin would add natural beauty for reflection, but would not be as easy to reach. (4) The site on the other side of I-395 recalls segregation.

I think the Smithsonian made a good choice for siting an African American Museum that is long overdue.

Posted by: Ross | January 30, 2006 10:04 PM

I think that the whole thing is ridiculous- really. And no, I'm not a bigot or a racist; I actually protested the placement if the WWII monument, too. I agree with Fisher that Smithsonian museums should promote the American experience as a complicated, and sometimes tragic, mosaic that includes all groups. Divisiveness is always counter-productive (hasn't that been the goal of the civil rights movement?) and contrary to this country's ideals. Prominent placement and weird architecture will not allay guilt over the past, nor will they force visitors to come and be interested in a subject that may or may not fill a museum. The Arts and Industries Building 1) already exists, 2) is attractive and placed in a tasteful location, and 3) IS NOT IN FRONT OF THE WASHINGTON MONUMENT. Get over it and stop messing with the mall.

Posted by: mall lover | January 30, 2006 11:32 PM

The American History museum will always be able to tell the story of the grand American tapestry, but there's no way it can accomplish that mission (which it does, in spectacular fashion) while also getting into the nitty gritty detail of the contributions various ethnic groups have made to American society. In the particular case of black Americans, who have been given the shaft for so long in the historical record, its fitting that there be a museum on the mall telling that story for all of America to see.

Posted by: Oliver Willis | January 31, 2006 2:30 AM

I agree with the previous posters about the importance of situating the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall.

A great deal of the mall is dedicated to the "founding fathers". How about a tribute the "working brothers" whose contribution to this country continues to be barely recognized.

It's time to re-think the things that comprise the Mall. Perhaps we should relocate some museums/memorials so that we can pay tribute to all the people, all ethnicities, all genders - everyone that built our great melting pot of a society.

Or maybe we just relegate the African American monuments to South East or South West and keep everyone in their place.

Posted by: Mall For Everyone | January 31, 2006 10:40 AM

All we can hope for is a visionary design that truly blends with the Mall. Its a beautiful place and I seriously doubt many of us who live here take enough time to walk it for the sake of being there, instead of a way to get from one end to the other. The museums and memorials are a bonus, the open space is what I love about the Mall area. To their credit, neither the Native American Museum nor the WWII Memorial, disturb this sense of flow and I only hope that the planners have the good taste/grace to follow this lead. Being smack in the middle of the Mall doesn't make a memorial beautiful, significant or important either; witness the FDR, Iwo Jima, or even the Holocaust sites. Not only that, but you would be hard pressed to find any memorial anywhere more impactful and moving than the Vietnam memorial.

To my knowledge this will be only the second museum on the Mall area that specifically divides one group from our population.

Posted by: AS | January 31, 2006 11:40 AM

it's about time. the african-american museum belongs on the mall, and it belonged there decades ago. i'm sure the designers will be able to integrate it architecturally with the washington monument and other surrounding structures. as for the content, we have got to be careful that the history of black americans -- which once included slave pens on this very mall -- is not sanitized. we've got to make sure that the museum tells it like it is.

Posted by: samg | January 31, 2006 12:33 PM

I don't see what Marc's beef is about. If your forebearers were persecuted, you get a museum on the Mall. It's way cheaper then reparations. We should save room for future holocausts - if they move that goofy castle, there's room for another museum.

Posted by: Turnabout | January 31, 2006 4:21 PM

If they put the African American Museum at the current Hirshhorn site, it would have the added symbolism of being exactly opposite the home of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution in the Archives. Then they could move the Hirshhorn to a location in NW DC or on the waterfront.

Posted by: Mike | February 1, 2006 9:07 AM

Right on Marc! The balkanization continues! Your column last year about the American Indian museum is a classic. This is what "multiculturalism" means in practice today: We all have our own barns to run off to. I cannot wait for the moonbat rhetoric that will spring forth from this place on its dedication day: More lefty, weird, separatist, bizarre, perpetural victim politics rhetoric from wackos like Kweise and Harry Belafonte. Don't America's blacks deserve better? Goodbye Mall. I will remember you as you were. Not as what you will become.

Posted by: Carol | February 1, 2006 12:03 PM

in response to Carol: so balkanization of our economy, workforce and justice system was ok in the case of African Americans, just don't try talking about it in historical terms, eh?

Posted by: ralph | February 1, 2006 1:32 PM

Does Marc respond to the comments? I think it would be good for discussion to have his thoughts rather than just venting by us readers!

Posted by: Mall For Everyone | February 2, 2006 10:44 AM

The History museum used to be the Science Museum. At some point it was apparently decided that science wasn't important. Maybe if we fragment our history enough we could change the history museum building back to a science museum.

Posted by: charles | February 3, 2006 4:02 PM

I appreciate Fisher's point that maybe it's time to start expanding the definition of the Mall. But I think it would have been a terrible idea (symbolically, politically, etc.) to start that process by relocating a museum dedicated to the African-American experience. The fact is, the museum already exists... it's called the Anacostia Museum (http://anacostia.si.edu/), and the fact that no one has mentioned it in this thread would seem to confirm the reasoning of those who argue that the museum needs to be on what we now know as the Mall if it's ever going to get any recognition and traffic.

Posted by: Patience | February 6, 2006 8:28 AM

I have an idea. Let's move all government agencies and offices to Kansas or Nebraska, clear all of the homes, and most of the business out of DC proper, and turn the entire city into a panopoly of museums and "cultural heritage" centers.
That way, there would be room for every group or -ology that wants its own "special place". There could be, for example, The National 7-11 Convenience Store Museum, or a National History Center of Girl Scout Cookies. Or how about the American Toilet Heritage Museum?

Come on, people. Let's have a reality check here, shall we? Washington is, in parts, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. There are many grand examples of architecture there. To keep filling in the open spaces, such as the Mall, takes away from the grandeur of the city, its buildings, and its existing monuments. There is no reason that any new centers of culture and heritage cannot be built outside the Beltway. And no, putting a museum dedicated to blacks there is not "segregation", nor is it "discrimination". (I, for one, am sick and tired of hearing blacks harp on those to words to get what they want, all of the time, trying to beat today's white over the head with guilt for something we had no control over.)

So why not stop all new projects in DC proper, and create a new "cultural zone", in order to save what already exists? It makes far more sense to do that, rather than ruin what already exists.

Posted by: Conner | February 7, 2006 3:53 PM

I have an idea. Let's move all government agencies and offices to Kansas or Nebraska, clear all of the homes, and most of the business out of DC proper, and turn the entire city into a panopoly of museums and "cultural heritage" centers.
That way, there would be room for every group or -ology that wants its own "special place". There could be, for example, The National 7-11 Convenience Store Museum, or a National History Center of Girl Scout Cookies. Or how about the American Toilet Heritage Museum?

Come on, people. Let's have a reality check here, shall we? Washington is, in parts, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. There are many grand examples of architecture there. To keep filling in the open spaces, such as the Mall, takes away from the grandeur of the city, its buildings, and its existing monuments. There is no reason that any new centers of culture and heritage cannot be built outside the Beltway. And no, putting a museum dedicated to blacks there is not "segregation", nor is it "discrimination". (I, for one, am sick and tired of hearing blacks harp on those to words to get what they want, all of the time, trying to beat today's white over the head with guilt for something we had no control over.)

So why not stop all new projects in DC proper, and create a new "cultural zone", in order to save what already exists? It makes far more sense to do that, rather than ruin what already exists.

Posted by: Conner | February 7, 2006 3:53 PM

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