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.
Steven Pearlstein is a Pulitzer Prize-winning business and economics columnist at The Washington Post.
(AP/Reuters/National Trust for Historic Preservation/Smithsonian Institution) - The Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building was built in 1881 but “shuttered in 2004 after years of neglect and underuse.” 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.
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.”