Five years ago, I reviewed the National Museum of American History in these pages. What I found was a mess, a tired, run-down behemoth of a building, originally built to be a museum of both technology and history, yet still uncertain about its mission.
It was confusing and incoherent. Its vast open spaces had been divided into numerous galleries filled with thousands of objects and accompanied by what seemed like miles of wall text. Its millions of visitors wandered aimlessly and guideless around crowded displays of locomotives, coins from all nations, Julia Child’s kitchen, President Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, and the first working light bulb invented by Thomas Edison. They searched in vain for a unifying theme, something that would give them even a summary idea of the history of America. It was no wonder the museum was derisively called “the nation’s attic.”
My piece ended on an upbeat note. A new director had just been appointed, and I hoped, even in the face of the entrenched civil service bureaucracy awaiting him, that some reform and reorganizing might be in the offing.
It was not to be. To great fanfare, the museum unveiled a multi-million-dollar, three-gallery exhibition last September called “The Nation We Build Together,” a curious title without any reference to the history of the American past, the museum’s raison d’être. Nonetheless, these exhibitions, the museum modestly assures us, will transform “How Audiences Experience American Democracy.” Given what visitors will see in the galleries, this is something that one fervently hopes doesn’t happen.
The new galleries, the director claims, are dedicated to helping “people understand the past” so that they can “make sense of the present and shape a more humane future.” Is shaping the future to be more humane (whatever that might mean) what a federal museum of American history should be doing? To transform the function of an institution whose mission is to educate into an activist institution for social change seems misdirected, to say the least.
One of the two new permanent galleries is entitled “American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith,” while the other is entitled “Many Voices, One Nation.” Both are tedious, but there is a bright spot among the new offerings: “Religion in Early America,” an excellent display in the Taubman Gallery, a new space devoted to temporary exhibitions, which I will discuss below.
Two “gateway” statues precede “The Nation We Build Together.” The first is a bespoke nine-foot-tall, 125-pound Statue of Liberty made of green lego blocks that stands just off the Constitution Avenue entrance. At first one thinks the museum’s curators could not have chosen something worse than this huge toy to introduce the new exhibitions—that is, until one encounters Horatio Greenough’s George Washington at the entrance to the new second-floor galleries.
Commissioned by Congress (almost never a good thing) for the Capitol Rotunda in 1832, the colossal twelve-ton sculpture, inspired by copies of Phidias’s statue of Zeus at Olympia, depicts a muscular, bare-chested Washington clad in only a toga and sandals, his right hand raised as though in benediction. Almost immediately after the statue arrived from Italy and was installed, it became an object of ridicule, a comical image of the reserved and dignified first president.
It was moved around the Capitol grounds several times before its transfer (perhaps “unloading” is a better word) in 1964 to the new Smithsonian Museum of American History, where it was banished to a location near the second-floor escalator. Now it has been resurrected and reinstalled to serve as a “landmark” and “beacon” to the new galleries.
Not a good start.
The first gallery, “American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith,” is enormous and bewildering. Covering over seven thousand square feet (the size of three average-sized American homes) it encompasses “six video presentations, five electronic interactives, and two touch stations,” plus nine hundred objects, each accompanied by a sizable amount of wall text. If one were to spend just two minutes looking at a single object and reading its nearby text, it would take over a day to traverse just this one gallery. Few visitors will have the time, inclination, or interest to do this, because most will want to see the rest of the huge museum’s chock-a-block displays. It is hard to believe that the curators were thinking very hard about most tourists who visit Washington for just a day or two and have other museums and monuments on their to-do list. It’s not a case of “less is more,” or even “more is more,” but, instead, of “more is less.”
This is a shame, because in this overwrought display there are many objects and subjects important for understanding the birth and flourishing of democracy in America. The portable desk on which Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, the inkstand Abraham Lincoln used for the Emancipation Proclamation, and Susan B. Anthony’s red shawl are here, but these, and other iconic objects, fight for the visitor’s attention amid a blizzard of photographs, posters, maps, clocks, cartoons, and assorted gewgaws in an exhibition lacking a chronological spine, rigorous intellectual conception, and a sense of what is needed to project order and coherence.
“Many Voices, One Nation” is equally large and crowded (290 objects, eight multimedia videos and animations, five interactive activities, flip books, and touch screens), but has, if possible, even less structure. It is fragmented into themes: “Unsettling the Continent,” “Peopling the Expanding Nation,” “Creating Community in Chicago and Los Angeles,” and “New Americans, Continuing Debates 1965–2000” (complete with a piece of a Mexican–U.S. border fence). The exhibition reflects the current politically correct academic view of American history as a divided and contested space of various religious, racial, and ethnic differences. Many of the objects it features and the stories it tells, especially about territorial expansion and immigration, are important, but they, and the accompanying wall texts, stress differences rather than community, identities rather than citizenship.
But to move from “Many Voices, One Nation” into the new temporary exhibition gallery’s “Religious Life in Early America” is like entering a different universe; in fact, it’s hard to believe you are in the same museum. Unlike the other new galleries, which are massive exposition engines designed by committees, this is a focused exhibition with a limited number of important and beautifully displayed objects with just the right amount of clear explanatory text. What separates “Religious Life in Early America” from the other exhibitions is not just scale, but discernment and restraint.
Peter Manseau, the exhibition’s organizer, and the author of its excellent companion book, writes, “We cannot hope to understand the history of the United States without grappling with how, why, and what Americans believed.” He is to be congratulated for this exploration of the importance of religion in American history, a topic given short shrift by many contemporary historians. Perhaps to address this lacuna, the museum will continue to explore religion through a multi-year grant from the Lilly Endowment for exhibitions and other activities. Let’s hope they are all as good as this one.
Three clearly articulated themes are explored: the many religions in early America, the principle of the freedom of religion enshrined in the First Amendment, and the flourishing of religion in the new nation.
Manseau has carefully chosen a number of context-rich objects, each of which tells an important story. Among these is a large iron cross, rediscovered in a Georgetown University attic in 1989 and almost certainly made from metal salvaged from the Ark and the Dove, the two ships which in 1634 brought Catholics to Maryland under a charter granted by King Charles I. The chalice and paten displayed here belonged to John Carroll, the United States’s first Roman Catholic bishop and archbishop. An important figure in the history of American Catholicism, Carroll founded Georgetown University and established the first Roman Catholic basilica in the United States in Baltimore.
A landmark of early-nineteenth-century American neoclassical architecture, the basilica was designed by Benjamin Latrobe and partially funded by lottery tickets sold by the thousands. One of these, ticket 3391, dated 18 September 1805, is in the exhibition.
Several Bibles with ties to the Founders are included in the exhibit. The so-called “George Washington Inaugural Bible,” a large tome used at his first inaugural, was borrowed from a New York Masonic lodge. Washington placed his hand on it during the ceremony and then bent to kiss it. Although a Bible was not required by the Constitution, like so many other things of Washington’s precedent-setting presidency, the tradition of swearing on a Bible continues to this day. There’s also “The Jefferson Bible,” a compilation of extracts cut and pasted from the four Gospels to make Thomas Jefferson’s personal New Testament.
The exhibition also explores some of the many non-Christian religions practiced in the early years of the country.
Shearith Israel, a Jewish congregation in New York City founded in 1654, was damaged in 1776 when the British reoccupied the city during the Revolutionary War. Hessian troops vandalized the building, setting fire to the congregation’s Torah. In the exhibition the scroll is opened to reveal the scorch marks caused by the blaze.
A string of Native American wampum beads (today thought of as trading currency but originally considered sacred objects), coins minted by Mormon settlers as their own currency, a selection of Shaker crafts, and a thirteen-page manuscript on the Islamic faith written in Arabic by an African slave who lived on Sapelo Island, Georgia, are just a few of the objects used by the many religions and their creeds that flourished on American shores.
Excepting “Religious Life in Early America,” the new galleries in the Smithsonian Museum of American History cannot, unfortunately, be judged a success. The idea to explore several central themes and issues of our history was a good one, and something the museum needed, but the new galleries are as bulging and confusing as their older counterparts elsewhere in the building. Americans, many of whom know little about their country’s history (as tests and surveys prove), will be no better enlightened, educated, or inspired than they were before. And that’s a real shame.
1 “Religion in Early America” opened at the National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C., on June 28, 2017 and remains on view through June 3, 2018.