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A museum for American ingenuity?

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Ground will be broken this week on Washington’s newest museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and in all honesty I’m of two minds about it.

Certainly if there is to be a separate national museum devoted to the history and culture of any group of Americans, this should be it. Americans have been arguing about slavery since before the founding of the republic. We fought a bloodywar over the enslavement of African Americans and we’ve been living with the social, economic, political and moral consequences ever since. African Americans also have had an outsize influence on American arts, culture and athletics. That this week’s cere­-mony will be presided over by the first black president of the United States should be a moment of national pride.

My concern has less to do with the museum but with its location on the Mall. The Mall is, and ought to be, a symbol of national unity and shared experience, a place where we celebrate our collective history, culture and achievements. Ours has always been a country of immigrants from all corners of the world who have contributed to, and drawn inspiration from, the collective national experience. And every year millions of Americans make the pilgrimage to the Mall to celebrate and learn about that experience.

The balkanization began in earnest with American Jews looking for a high-profile site for a Holocaust Museum to keep alive the frightening memory of Nazi genocide. It’s turned out to be a fabulous museum, and visiting it is a powerful experience. But because the Holocaust was not a central part of the American experience, it has always seemed somewhat inappropriate to me to locate it on a site that for all practical purposes is part of the Mall.

More to the point, the Holocaust Museum has spawned “museum envy” among other groups of Americans who now demand equal billing on the national promenade.

Native Americans were the first to succeed with the National Museum of the American Indian. Although a spectacular piece of architecture, the exhibits and programming inside are widely considered to have been a disappointment, as falling attendance numbers attest and as the museum’s new director acknowledges in an article in this weekend’s Post Arts section. To non-Indians, it comes across as a museum for Indians, not just about them. By organizing the museum around tribal pods to give each its due, it takes the idea of historic and cultural balkanization to the next level — balkanization squared.

Now, of course, other groups are demanding their rightful place on the Mall. In 2009, at the behest of the Hispanic Caucus, Congress set up a commission to study the feasibility of a National Museum of the American Latino. The commission, whose appointees were almost all Hispanic, hired mostly Hispanic consultants, held field hearings in cities with large Hispanic populations and came to the conclusion that there was an “urgency, desire and need for a museum to highlight and preserve this great heritage for the benefit of all Americans.”

Where does it end? What about the Scotch-Irish? Or Italian Americans? Surely we wouldn’t want to overlook Germans, Poles, Greeks or Chinese. And you won’t be surprised to learn that women’s groups are organizing a push for a museum of their own. So much for Congress’s declaration in 2003 that the Mall should be considered a “substantially completed work of civic art.”

Congressman Jim Moran of Virginia has been a courageous voice against this balkanization of the Mall. “I don’t want a situation where whites go to the original museum, African Americans go to the African American museum, Indians go to the Indian museum, Hispanics go to the Latino American museum,” he said. “That’s not America.”

The issue is now being raised again as the Smithsonian and Congress face the decision of what to do with the Arts and Industries Building, the stately brick 19th century exhibition hall that sits next to the Smithsonian Castle on the Mall. The National Museum, as it was then called, was completed in 1881, largely to house the exhibits created for the great Centennial Exhibition of 1876, and it quickly became a showcase for the latest in American technology — electric lights, telephones, elevators and even a locomotive.

The Smithsonian, of course, has grown considerably since that time, spawning wonderful new museums on and off the Mall. Along the way, much of the A&I Building was divided into ugly offices while the building was gradually allowed to fall into disrepair. Now, thanks to money set aside from the economic stimulus pot, the interior has largely been gutted and the roof is being replaced, but the cost of fully restoring it will run considerably more.

But restore it as what? That is the question.

Those backing the Latino Museum had hoped to locate it at the foot of Capitol Hill, next to the East Wing of the National Gallery, but that plan was nixed — ostensibly for security reasons — by the Architect of the Capitol. Plan B is to take over the A&I Building as the gateway to a bigger and more modern facility to be built under the Mall’s grass allee, or in a new structure across Independence Avenue.

I will leave it to architectural critics to consider the prospect of sky lights and emergency exits protruding up and down the Mall, just as I’ll leave it to bureaucratic insiders to handicap the prospect of tearing down the Forrestal Building and relocating Energy Department headquarters. I would note, however, that with GOP candidates crisscrossing the country promising to deport millions of illegal Hispanic immigrants and build hundreds of miles of electrified fence to keep them from returning, I don’t see a Republican Congress rushing to commit $300 million for a Latino Museum in the middle of a budget crisis.

As it happens, there is a better, simpler idea for the venerable old Arts and Industries Building, namely to return it to its original purpose as a showcase for American innovation and the latest gee-whiz technology. An informal group comprised of academics, technologists and think-tank executives, calling themselves Makers on the Mall, have come together to push this idea with Congress, the Smithsonian and the Washington tourist industry. Their next stop will be at the corporate headquarters of some of the country’s leading technology companies, and my guess is the executives will see the logic of providing financial support for a national museum celebrating American ingenuity and industrial competitiveness that might help to excite a new generation of American inventors and tinkerers. With backing and encouragement from Congress and the White House, the group should be able to handily raise the endowment necessary to renovate and operate the museum.

What has made the United States the most powerful and affluent nation on Earth has not only been its ability to attract ambitious immigrants from all of the world, but also its knack for discovering and commercializing the latest technology. It is part of our common heritage and it most desperately needs to be part of our common future.

If anything deserves to be recognized and celebrated on the great national commons — if anything can pull us back together as a country — surely it is the goal of rekindling that national spirit and a national commitment to industrial ingenuity. And what better place to do it than an architectural gem built just for that purpose at the dawn of the industrial era.

The name? That’s easy. The National Museum of Arts and Industry.

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