National museum of trivialized history

May 17, 2007|By Eric Rozenman

One sight tourists in Washington won't be able to visit this summer is the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Thank goodness. Before doors shut a year ago for 24 months and $85 million in renovations, it was one of the biggest disappointments in town.

Unfortunately, interim exhibitions off-site suggest there's little reason to expect substantive improvement when the museum reopens in 2008.

Before it closed, the museum didn't offer even a CliffsNotes version of its ostensible subject. Visitors found fragmentary displays, disjointed presentations and pop culture detritus.

These provided little chronological sense of American history. There was no thematic progression from discovery through settlement to nation-building and world power. There was no exposition of the Anglo-Saxon origins of our representative republic. There was no examination of American capitalism's competitively symbiotic relationship with popular government.

Is the United States, as Abraham Lincoln put it, "mankind's last, best hope"? Is ours, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asserted, the "indispensable nation"? The National Museum of American History didn't even raise the questions, let alone help visitors answer them.

Like Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, it was more an exhibition of TV-certified contemporary nostalgia. In the National Museum's case there were first lady Jacqueline Kennedy's gown, Archie Bunker's chair and an Oscar the Grouch puppet. But as an introduction to what America was and is, the museum seemed an unassembled puzzle - all pieces, no picture.

At least the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame offers tourists a 13-minute filmed overview of its topic. In D.C., visitors got no big-picture introduction.

Not only did awkward physical layouts - which will be corrected by the renovation - defeat potentially powerful displays, including "The Price of Freedom: Americans at War" and "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden." Wildly uneven choice of material (Washington's dress sword cheek-by-jowl with talking puppets in Colonial garb, for example) also interfered with telling the nation's story.

America's past competed for attention with entertaining but marginal exhibits such as "Azucar! The Life and Music of Celia Cruz" and "Bon Appetit! Julia Child's Kitchen" and, perhaps not surprisingly, six gift shops.

For comparison, consider the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Louvre in Paris. In the former, one can move in a coherent, self-educating progression through millenniums of Jewish and general Near Eastern history, from ancient archaeology to contemporary art. At the latter, one can do likewise with history and art from many parts of the globe. In Washington, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum presents a brief but defining period of history in an intelligible, instructive manner.

Although closed, the National Museum of American History maintains a public profile by displaying key artifacts elsewhere. At the National Air and Space Museum last fall, these included Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, the Scarecrow costume from that film, Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves and the R2-D2 and C-3PO robot figures from Star Wars.

The museum reportedly owns more than 3 million objects. Logically arranged and substantively interpreted, a well-chosen fraction of them could tell America's story. But that won't happen if the renovated facility resembles its earlier incarnation, which was not the museum of U.S. history but the antique store of pop culture.

Eric Rozenman is a writer and editor in Washington. This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

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