U.S. History Museum Looks Sleek--But Where's The Beef?
After more than two years of renovations, the Smithsonian's American History museum reopens today, and those who remember it as a set of dim, cavernous, echo-filled hallways featuring humongous locomotives, Dorothy's ruby red slippers, and a sad-looking Star Spangled Banner are in for something of a shock.
The $85 million remake, originally intended largely as an updating of the 1964 building's internal systems, has produced a bracingly new look--clean lines, sleek lighting, a dazzling glass staircase and a boffo, dramatic new home for the massive American flag that in 1814 inspired Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem. Even the information desks themselves are totally cool, carved from a startlingly aqua-colored material called Avonite.
But beyond the splendor of the two new entrance halls--a rather cramped space on the National Mall side and a grand and welcoming lobby on the Constitution Avenue side of the building--the toughest and most important question facing the Smithsonian remains largely unanswered:
Will the history museum embrace a dumbed-down, rah-rah approach to telling the American story, or is there a way to blend corporate financial support with the rigorous and questioning content that visitors deserve?
As the museum's own 2002 report on its "incoherence" put it, "There is tension between those inclined to celebrate American achievement and those inclined to focus on America's failures to meet her declared aspirations. There is a related tension between those who see American history as a series of leaps from triumph to triumph and those who see the history as a more difficult and troubled journey."
Despite the lengthy closing of the museum and the extraordinary care and creativity that has gone into the preservation of the Star Spangled Banner, there is actually not much in the way of new content for visitors to see right now.
You should hurry over before Jan. 4 because the last-known draft of the Gettysburg Address in Abraham Lincoln's hand is on very temporary display, a loan from the White House that will end in far less than fourscore and twenty days. The three-page, elegantly-penned manuscript, which Lincoln wrote to donate to an auction that was held in 1864 to raise money for Union soldiers, is in remarkably fine shape. You can read every word plainly in Lincoln's careful cursive--a reminder of another of the skills that too many schools no longer bother to teach. Even though the Address is only at the museum for a few weeks, there's a fine set of placards and multimedia features that provide context and a storyline for those who come to the speech cold.
A much larger exhibit on Lincoln--featuring more than 60 treasures, including the top hat he wore on the night he was assassinated at Ford's Theatre and an iron wedge he used to split logs back home in Illinois--will open in January as part of the citywide celebration of the 16th president's 200th birthday.
But as the history museum rolls out several new shows through what officials are calling a "reopening year," there does not appear to be much of an effort to address controversial questions about who we are and how we got to this stage.
Probing and richly detailed shows like the terrific ones the museum produced in the late 1980s--"From Field to Factory," which traced the migration of American blacks from the rural South to the cities of the North, or "A More Perfect Union," which confronted visitors with troubling questions about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II--are hard to find in a lineup of exhibits that leans more toward shows celebrating Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo," collecting photographs from Washington's Scurlock portrait studio, or telling the story of the nation's marine vessels and waterways.
As Bernice Johnson Reagon, a longtime consultant to the museum, said some years back, ''We should not flinch. We should be on the cutting edge...."
Next September will bring a new show on the Bracero program, a mid-20th century experiment in which millions of Mexican men were brought to the United States as guest workers, and that at least has the potential to put the museum back in the business of asking visitors to question the relationship between our ideals and our past.
But there's little sign of such ambition in the new content being unveiled today. A Hall of Invention is a colorful and hands-on new introduction to the museum's science wing, but it feels more like something out of a very good children's museum than any exploration of the entrepreneurial spirit that has made this a nation of extraordinary innovation.
The museum needs to reestablish itself as a serious center for intellectual discovery, moving past the relatively unquestioning, flag-waving approach that permeates, for example, The Price of Freedom, the 2004 show that presents an entertaining but thin tour through America's wars. That exhibit, which nearly skips over World War I and presents a far too neatly scrubbed view of the Vietnam War, ends with a film that focuses heavily on the heroism and sacrifice of American service members. The movie's last minutes include moving quotations from soldiers and sailors who, after the attacks of 9/11, chose to defend their country. But while the film is emotionally powerful, it stands in stark contrast to a far more piercing and honest film across town at the Newseum, where the call to patriotism is accompanied by a no-holds-barred examination of the full range of reactions that Americans had to the terrorist assault.
When a privately-mounted museum that is essentially a paean to the news industry provides more detail and asks tougher questions than the Smithsonian, it's time for a new spirit of inquiry inside the nation's attic.
Luckily, the new version of the history museum is anything but a finished product. In addition to the "reopening year," a slew of new exhibits are planned between now and 2014, the museum's 50th anniversary. The challenge will be to live up to what the Smithsonian's blue ribbon commission recommended for a big, sweeping introductory exhibit that would be the museum's showpiece: "The exhibit should celebrate America's remarkable strengths and achievements while also treating fairly and responsibly the ways in which America may have failed to meet the high standards it has proclaimed for itself."
Of course no one wants the Smithsonian's showcase of Americana to be a purely academic presentation--it's also a place for fun and games, and the history museum has recognized this by putting some of its iconic holdings front and center in the entrance halls. In a welcome addition, those spaces, which will surely be the most crowded in the building, are now lined with everything from C-3PO's costume from "Return of the Jedi," to Tito Puente's timbales that he played in the closing ceremonies of the Atlanta Olympic Games, to a Marine helmet with night-vision scope that was worn by an NBC correspondent during the early days of the Iraq war.
"We wanted people to walk in and immediately know they're in a history museum, just like when you walk into the Air and Space Museum, you see the rockets and planes," says Valeska Hilbig, a museum spokesman.
Unfortunately, some of that front and center space has been given over to the Smithsonian's commercial ventures. The 19th century ice cream parlor that was such a draw at the history museum is gone, replaced by a museum store. And there's a new cafe at the Constitution Avenue entrance. Sadly, the entrance into the museum from the National Mall is marred by the continuing presence of ugly concrete planters that look as if they were just dropped off the Homeland Security supply truck last week. The pathetic truth is that they've been sitting there for seven years and no one has cared enough to present the nation's visitors with a less fearful and quivering public image. (Hilbig says there is a plan to replace the planters with much better looking low walls, and the work is expected to be done by the middle of next year.)
Telling our country's story is no easy task. In recent years, the Smithsonian bent over way too far to accommodate the desire of big donors to celebrate American heroes, resulting in a firestorm of protest that the museum was turning into a propaganda show. Now, following this smart and attractive physical remake, it's time for curators and supporters of the museum to insist that the next set of exhibits face the central challenges of American democracy head on. A museum that sweetens the past for the purpose of diminishing contemporary dissent does a disservice to all; a museum that confronts today's citizens with the unfinished work of the nation can help lead us all toward that more perfect union.
By Marc Fisher |
November 21, 2008; 8:20 AM ET
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