Treasures of American History

I recently had the opportunity to spend several days in Washington, DC for the annual American Library Association conference. I had some time for sightseeing and made the most of it, having never been to DC before (being little enough to ride in a stroller doesn’t count). After spending so much time with national monuments and museums, I have been pondering our notion of American history, and wondering what this says about us as a nation.

My thoughts were jump-started by an exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum, “Treasures of American History.” The Smithsonian Museum of American History is currently closed for renovations, so they’ve put up a small exhibit of highlights in one of the Air and Space Museum exhibit spaces. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this wasn’t exactly it. I realize that these objects are probably usually displayed rather differently, and that I may have been seeing them without some of the context the museum usually provides, but overall I just found the exhibit really irritating.

It was a jumble of objects from all periods of American history, including what I thought was a disproportionately large amount of “artifacts” from movies, tv, and celebrities. Partly this may be because I tend to have a rather narrow view of what constitutes “history” – to me, tv shows don’t count, though I can see valid arguments for them being part of cultural history. But in that case, I don’t think cultural artifacts should be jumbled up with artifacts from the history of science or government, but as I said, the whole exhibit was a jumble with no timeline or attempt to tie things together or anything.

As an illustration, the first objects you see on walking in are, in a row: Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, Thomas Edison’s lightbulb, and Kermit the Frog. George Washington’s suit stands across the room from Ray Charles’ tux. C3PO and R2D2 stand next to an Eniac machine and across from artifacts representing advances in science and medicine. The thing that really got to me was they have Mr. Rogers’ sweater, which I can at least appreciate as representing a significant development in children’s entertainment and education, but right next to it, almost touching it in fact, is Carrie Bradshaw’s computer from “Sex and the City.” Does this strike anyone else as being a somewhat inappropriate juxtaposition? Not to mention I think we need a few more years before considering “Sex and the City” part of cultural history.

The other thing that bothered me was the superficiality of so many of the objects on display – even the ones I would consider more historical. Like Abraham Lincoln’s top hat – does it really tell us anything about Lincoln the man or Lincoln the president? On its own, I don’t think it does; it’s just something for the tourists to gawp at and take pictures of.

I thought many of the displays could have been made a lot more meaningful with the addition of historical documents, or at least facsimiles thereof (I guess this is the librarian-archivist in me rearing its ugly head again). They have the table on which Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the “Declaration of Sentiments”, but don’t really say much about what it was, nor do they even have a quote from it. Why not display a copy of the Declaration with the table? Instead, we learn what kind of wood the table is made of, and where it was manufactured.

Probably part of the problem is that documents like that are generally held by libraries or archives rather than museums, so if you wanted artifacts and documents displayed together it would take multiple institutions cooperating with each other to make that happen. Sometimes that does happen, and I think it is going to become more common especially as digital exhibits become ever more popular. But I still wonder at the obsession with these random articles of clothing and pieces of furniture. How do they tell us anything about history without more context?

On the other hand, they are more exciting to look at than a bunch of boring papers. Still, while I was in DC I also went to the National Archives to see the “Charters of Freedom” or whatever they call them (also known as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights), and found the whole experience quite moving.

I was thrilled to get to see these documents in person, in part out of geekyness, having seen various television shows about how they are preserving the ink and parchment, but mostly to see for myself the documents that lay forth the freedoms we theoretically enjoy in this country. I got rather emotional puzzling to read the faded ink on the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

I got even more emotional hearing the Hispanic family behind me explaining in hushed and awed voices to their roughly 8-year old daughter what all the documents were and why they were important. The idea that these ideals resonate just as strongly with recent immigrants as they did with the founders of our country shook me in a way, and reminded me that history matters, that actions and events today can have far-reaching consequences in the future, that the past is more than a roomful of old costumes and tables, it is ideas and ideals that endure. And maybe some people get that same charge and realization from looking at famous people’s clothes or other artifacts – in fact, I know it can happen, but the set-up at the Air and Space Museum was not designed for that kind of education. In any case, I’ll take the documents over the dresses most any day.

-posted by akdmyers

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4 Responses to Treasures of American History

  1. Dana says:

    As I recall, those artifacts are displayed rather differently in the actual Museum of American History, because I recall thinking that it was one of the most interesting museums in DC. Then again, that was more than 10 years ago. But I guess the main reason I can see for them to have saved all those artifacts, like tables and hats, is to make history seem more real. It would have been nice if they had provided more historical information, but as you said, given how small the space was, we’ll just assume they do more of that in the real exhibit. In the meantime, at least there is a way for little kids who just learned about Abraham Lincoln or whatever to see something that was really his, and therefore connect a bit more strongly with a different time in history. I do kind of recall the museum being very kid-friendly in its orientation, but maybe that’s just because I was still mostly a kid at the time.

    That said, what I do strongly remember is that many of the cultural (TV) history bits were what were displayed upon first entering the museum, giving them a great deal of prominence. No doubt it helps draw in the masses and interest them in something “fun,” but it is also strange to think that those are the kinds of things that people can most readily personally associate with their own history. Then again, I do remember how difficult it was to join in all the conversations on the playground at school when my parents instituted the “no TV during the school week” rule. Television has become a huge part of our culture, and not just in the US. Something to think about more, probably.

  2. TheGnat says:

    I recall the Smithsonian museums in general being pretty good about context (in fact, giving a more accurate context got them in trouble over the exhibition of Hiroshima artifacts back in ’92 and they inevitably scaled it down and made it way less upsetting to WW2 vets…).

    You’re an archivist, so it’s probably much easier to connect with history through documents. For many people, documents don’t seem anymore real than a history book. As much as I love history, it generally takes something very personal to the people involved for it to have an effect on me.

    I have to agree though, it’s a bit early to add “Sex and the City” items…

  3. akdmyers says:

    I agree that personal artifacts can have a more immediate emotional impact than papers, I just wish these items had been displayed with a little more context and organization. I found it really hard to get excited about any of the stuff when it was all such a hodge podge.

    Dana makes a good point about TV and celebrities being such a huge part of our culture, but I think the exhibit would have been more effective (for me, anyways) if those items had been separate from things like Lincoln’s top hat – the juxtapositions were just too jarring and distracting for me to really appreciate anything I was looking at.

  4. […] goes back a bit to Ann’s post about how much people seem drawn to seeing real bits of history, regardless of how meaningful those […]

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