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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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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I think it should celebrate the triumphs since there seems to be ample supply of critics, whiners, grumps, crabs and complainers to point out the missteps, failures and shortcomings.

Posted by: ronjaboy | November 21, 2008 9:05 AM

Recalling Fisher's great writing on the contradictions involved in the American Indian Museum, I am confused that he seems to have taken a different path here. This American History museum has always been a disaster. Claiming that the best way to make it better or great is to focus more on "dissent" is just lazy. Please. Keep the academics AWAY! The vast majority are lefties, who earn tenure and praise and further their careers by bashing America. Of course, there will never be an exhibit about how this country's "ideals" have lifted millions and millions OUT OF poverty, has freed millions around the world, how its people reach out to those suffering across the planet every single day, even as we are bashed constantly.

The question that this museum should address, should it find some courage: What IS IT about this country that has inspired such astonishing POSITIVE impact across the globe? Go ahead and give me plenty of exhibits about "dissent." That takes ZERO courage these days. But addressing the REAL story of how this country's history has impacted its own people and the world: We will never see it.

Why is Air and Space the most-visited museum in the world? It's the values. It's the IDEA of this country. People want it. They want to see it and get some of it for themselves. And the path to take here is to pronounce over and over how we should be ASHAMED of it?

Posted by: Craig_Colgan | November 21, 2008 9:43 AM

I don't know that the museum has *always* been "a disaster". But it has been - more than the other major SI museums - forced to accommodate political correctness in the past 15 years or so.

The problem with that is history is not politically correct. It is filled with things like racism and injustices and bias that most 21st century Americans would cringe at. But if you try and present it as part of our history, people yell and scream - they don't want to be reminded of our checkered and divisive past.

Private museums can get away with telling these stories, but more and more, it seems the Smithsonian cannot because it is "America's Museum". Which really is a shame.

So I'm excited to see the new display for the Star Spangled Banner, but other than that, there's not a whole lot that has excited me at NMAH in recent years.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | November 21, 2008 10:21 AM

There is a unique tension that exists at museums on or near the National Mall--how to provide critiques of and commentary on difficult subjects while still recognizing their place in the monumental core of the nation's capital. While I will be watching NMAH with great interest to see how they choose to navigate these issues, as a native Washingtonian and frequent visitor to the museum as a child I recognize the value the museum has as a tool for American cultural education. Not indoctrination, mind--to paraphrase what was quoted at the re-opening ceremony this morning, it should not be the place for rah-rah chest-thumping patriotism. There is, however, a good deal of American history and culture that is accessible to visitors in a hands-on, artifact-based way at the museum that forms the basis of a common vocabulary from which we can begin to discuss the larger, more difficult issues. I have heard that the renovated museum will focus much more on the multicultural make-up of America, and I look forward to watching this transformation take place as well.

As a museum dork, I've been excited about the reopening and walking past the exterior signs of the renovations in progress for the last several months. It's great to have NMAH back in the Smithsonian's repetoire again.

Posted by: museum_lady | November 21, 2008 10:39 AM

What is offensive about the comments from the museum is this idea that somehow, in some way, people taking a critical eye toward American history are negative or somehow at odds with rah rah American culture. The election of a change candidate shows that one can be both "rah rah" and want to improve what we have. To suggest otherwise, as Marc does, is logically incoherent.

Posted by: bbcrock | November 21, 2008 10:55 AM

What is the fate of the Smithsonian’s vacant and deteriorating Arts and Industries Building? The A&I Building is a National Historic Landmark and merits better treatment from the Smithsonian.

The Smithsonian has no funds to renovate the Arts and Industries Building. Nevertheless, in May 2008 the Smithsonian rejected 11 proposals from outside groups to rehabilitate and utilize the historic building. At the time the Associated Press reported that Roger Sant stated “Ultimately, we decided the Smithsonian should retain control of this historic landmark building.”

The New York Times reported last week that: “Several of the questions [at the Regents meeting] dealt with the Smithsonian’s neo-Classical 1881 Arts and Industries Building, which has been closed for four years and is listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the nation’s most endangered places because of its state of disrepair. Dr. Clough said that the cost of repairs had been estimated at about $75 million and that the Smithsonian would conclude a study on its future use in January. One member of the audience suggested setting aside part of the building as an information center for all the institutions on the National Mall.”

Shouldn’t the Smithsonian involve the public in its study? Or, at least, outside experts in the adaptive reuse of historic structures?

Posted by: ArlingtonPreservationist | November 21, 2008 11:46 AM

There's an information center for all the institutions on the Mall next door to A&I, in the Castle.
The public, through its elected representatives, has voiced utter disinterest in maintaining Smithsonian facilities. Having 'turned out' the museums to corporate johns, it's pathetic to hear Grassley and John Q. Public squawk about the Institution's wardrobe and lifestyle.
As for the history museum, it's much like our history: a jumble of robots, revolutionaries, and reprobates, eliciting "rah-rah"; "hmm" and "what the?!?" in turn. I kinda love it for that.

Posted by: redlineblue | November 21, 2008 12:17 PM

If you miss the Gettysburg Address at NMAH, come see it at the Library of Congress beginning Feb. 12 when the exhibition "With Malice Toward None" opens:

(Heck, even if you see it there, you should STILL visit the Library.)

Over the course of our three-month exhibition, the "Hay" and "Nicolay" drafts (the Library has two of the five known drafts) will be on display sequentially.

This is an extremely rare opportunity -- hasn't been done in several years and won't happen again for several more after!

Library of Congress

Posted by: MattRaymond | November 21, 2008 1:52 PM

Thanks for a very thoughtful column; as an historian and former SI empolyee, I agree with all of it. Directors at SI became so accustomed to worrying about offending Ted Stevens in the appropriations committee that they seem not to have noticed that Congress is under new leadership. The museums can present more nuanced exhibitions that remind us of both failures and successes in American history, but after so many years of stifling the curators, it's going to be hard to get there again.

To the commenter who wants to see only ideals and not dissent portrayed, I'd ask how he thinks the American Revolution, the end of slavery, and the Civil Rights movement were accomplished. Sometimes we can only realize our best ideals through dissent and not complacency or self-congratulation.

Posted by: CG83 | November 23, 2008 10:34 AM

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