Years later, 1992 promises to be a year of Columbus Days


October 11, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

Washington - It's on its way: Christopher Columbus, the musical.

And Christopher Columbus, the opera. And Christopher Columbus, the Hollywood movie (make that movies). And Christopher Columbus, the lecture series, the encyclopedia, the comic book, the ballet, the jigsaw puzzle, the exhibit, the puppet show, the 5K race, the essay contest, the commemorative key chain, the softball tournament, the luxury cruise . . .

Welcome to Christopher Columbus, the year.

The official Christopher Columbus Quincentenary commemoration is kicked off with a festival at Washington's Union Station tomorrow -- one year before the 500th anniversary of the seafarer's historic cruise to these parts. And nearly every state and major city across the country is preparing its own nod to the adventurer whose reputation has taken a bit of a beating since we first met him in the second grade.

But whether hero or knave, so mammoth is the list of Columbus-related activities that a calendar of nationwide events, filed on computer by the official Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission in Washington, takes nine hours to print out.

So pervasive will be the parades and seminars and regattas that the student body at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., has declared its campus a "Columbus Free Zone."

Indeed, from tomorrow until Columbus Day, 1992, such zones may be hard to come by: More than 5,000 planned events are already on the books, says James Kuhn, executive director of the Congressionally established Jubilee Commission.

Why all the hoopla?

"America is fairly new to be having 500 years of anything to be celebrating," says James Axtell, head of the Columbus quincentenary committee of the American Historical Association. He also points to the global nature of the occasion -- more than 30 countries have quincentenial committees.

"That landing, that encounter, started the age of discovery that led to discoveries then, 400 years ago, 100 years ago, now and in the future," says Mr. Kuhn. "There's a lot to be gained for all Americans in going back and looking at what happened at that first landing, and the process of bringing the world together for the first time."

Americans won't have to travel far to get that look.

Book stores will be flooded with biographies, histories and children's books, many of them reflecting the more critical, or at least more multi-cultural, eye that's been cast toward Columbus and his momentous voyage of 1492.

Hollywood is cashing in with two feature films in the works: "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery," starring Timothy Dalton (the current James Bond) with a screenplay by Mario Puzo and an as-yet untitled film starring French actor Gerard Depardieu.

Spanish-owned and built replicas of Columbus' caravels, the Pinta, the Nina and the Santa Maria, will tour U.S. port cities, arriving in Baltimore April 16. A fleet of tall ships from 40 countries, too, will visit major cities in 1992, sailing into the New York Harbor for a huge July 4 extravaganza.

In Washington alone, two major museum exhibits -- the National Gallery of Art's "Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration," and the Smithsonian Natural History Museum's "Seeds of Change," its largest single exhibit ever -- examine Columbus' world.

And what would be an anniversary celebration without T-shirts? Dozens of manufacturers are spinning out, not only T-shirts, but commemorative medallions and coins, scarves and ties, porcelain and pewter pieces, flags and watches.

"It's more commercialism than celebration or commemoration," says Franklin W. Knight, a Johns Hopkins University history professor and consultant on this week's PBS series.

But not everyone sees the occasion as one worthy of celebration in the first place.

"We are going to be viewed as the skunks of the garden party," says Suzan Harjo, national coordinator of the 1992 Alliance, a network of American Indian groups planning alternative quincentenary events such as tomorrow's prayer service on the National Mall. Spiritual leaders from around the country are to lead a memorial to those American Indian tribes that died out after 1492 and a tribute to those who have survived.

Although Ms. Harjo believes her groups' efforts will be "overwhelmed and overshadowed" by more traditional Columbus events during the year, she believes that "at least we've had a semantical impact -- and words are important."

For instance, the Columbus Commission speaks of the quincentenary as a "commemoration" as opposed to a "celebration," and the landing as an "encounter" rather than "discovery."

In Maryland, the official quincentenary committee has paid particular attention to the voice of American Indians and has taken an unconventional approach to a commemoration of the 1492 encounter, says executive director Ann D. Hartman. After HTC all, she says, "What does Maryland have to do with Christopher Columbus other than its having an active Italian-American community?"

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