December 30, 2010

ON THE OTHER HAND...:

To Each His Own Museum, as Identity Goes on Display (EDWARD ROTHSTEIN, 12/28/10, NY Times)

The placement of totem poles in classic museums of natural history, for example, is a consequence of 19th-century convictions, also imperial, that they were created by peoples who were closer to the natural world — part of natural history rather than the history of civilization.

To a certain extent, the identity museum is a polemical response to such museums. And revenge can be extreme. The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington — a pioneering example of the genre — jettisons Western scholarship and tells its own story, leading one tribe to solemnly describe its earliest historical milestone: “Birds teach people to call for rain.”

Through a gauze of romance, that museum portrays an impossibly peace-loving, harmonious, homogeneous, pastoral world that preceded the invasion of white people — a vision with far less detail and insight than the old natural history museums once provided.

Sometimes, though, the identity impulse is illuminating, as in the Nordic Heritage Museumin Seattle, which gives a Scandinavian angle to the settling of the Pacific Northwest. Sometimes it involves an unusual twist: the new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia shapes an identity that emphasizes not its distinctions from the American mainstream, but its connections to it: identity is characterized as assimilative.

Then there are the two most recent examples. The President’s House site is where the nation’s executive mansion stood from 1790 to 1800. And a display there could have provided some unusual insight into the American past, because not only did George Washington, as he shaped the institution of the presidency, sleep there, so did nine of his slaves. On Independence Mall in Philadelphia, which is devoted to ideas of American liberty, it would have made sense for this site to explore the conjunction of these two incompatible ideas — slavery and liberty — particularly as both were knit into the nation’s founding.

Instead, during eight years of controversy, protests and confrontations, the project (costing nearly $12 million) was turned into something else. Black advocacy groups pressed the National Park Service and the city to create an exhibition that focused on enslavement. Rosalyn McPherson, the site’s project manager, emphasized in an interview that the goal was to give voice to the enslaved. Community meetings stressed that slaves had to be portrayed as having “agency” and “dignity.” A memorial to all slaves was erected, inscribed with a roster of African tribes from which they were taken — a list that has no clear connection to either the site or the city.

The result is more than a little strange. One black advocacy group’s leader, Michael Coard, who was placed on the site’s oversight committee, wrote an angry, influential essay on the Web site of his organization, Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, that was just in its analysis of historical neglect, but distorting in its all-consuming strategy. It would allow no differentiation and qualification, treating the site almost as if it were the Slave Market of Charleston.

Even in the context of 18th-century slavery, though, this house (long demolished) must have been unusual: its internal structure may have teetered with the nation’s own paradoxes, resisting easy characterization. There is no conclusive evidence, for example, that it held “slave quarters.” In a city with more free blacks than slaves, the house sheltered more indentured and paid servants than slaves; accounts suggest that sleeping quarters may have mixed both race and status. John Adams, who also lived in this mansion, didn’t even own slaves.

Moreover, the scanty historical background presented in the exhibition’s annotated illustrations is almost mischievously diminishing. During the 10 years in which Philadelphia was the national capital and Washington and Adams were shaping the new country there, what we see of the “upstairs” world is this: unrest (riots opposing Adams’s policy regarding France), protest (against the Jay Treaty), fear (a yellow-fever epidemic) and hypocrisy (Washington is shown with a disdainful look as he awards a medal to a proud Seneca Indian leader). And the architecture of the site makes it seem as though we are standing in an open-air ruin.

The result: an important desire to reveal what was once hidden ends up pulling down nearly everything else, leaving a landscape as starkly unreal as the one in which Washington could never tell a lie. It is not really a reinterpretation of history; it overturns the idea of history, making it subservient to the claims of contemporary identity politics.

This approach is even more sweeping in the exhibition about Muslim science, “1001 Inventions,” at the Hall of Science. It claims to show how a millennium-long Golden Age of Islamic science lasting into the 17th century anticipated the great inventions and discoveries of the Western world.


...wouldn't we rather they wreck the entire exhibit so we can ignore it rather than taint a portion of one we'd otherwise want to see?

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 30, 2010 5:27 AM
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