German-American Heritage Museum promotes culture, doesn't tell whole story
By Marc Fisher
Saturday, March 20, 2010
More than 20 years ago, when American Jews who had survived the Holocaust were planning a museum in Washington to tell the story of that nightmare, representatives of the German government approached organizers and offered a generous donation -- if the museum would add a section on postwar German democracy.
The offer was turned down flat.
When the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened, many German critics were appalled by its blunt, rigorous recounting of the details of Nazi genocide. The only way modern, democratic Germany could salvage its reputation in the United States, many Germans in government and the private sector believed, was to counter the Holocaust museum with one of their own. That museum opens this weekend in a gorgeously restored Victorian row house on Sixth Street NW.
In a space that until a few years ago served as a boarding house for Asian and Latino immigrants, the German-American Heritage Museum tells the story of America's largest immigrant group, from the German pastor who accompanied English settlers at Jamestown in 1607 to the refugees from Hitler's tyranny in the mid-20th century.
It's a small but serious and intriguing museum (trace their ancestry and you find that Fred Astaire, Babe Ruth and Herbert Hoover were German Americans), yet it is also a troubling new sign that the cultural shift that brought Washington museums about the Holocaust, American Indians and, in 2015, African Americans is locked in place. The Balkanizers are in control.
There are movements to add museums on Latino and Asian Americans, and Rdiger Lentz, the veteran German TV journalist who is executive director of the German museum, says he looks forward to the day when the city is home to museums about Polish, Italian and Irish Americans as well.
"Americans should know about all of the ethnicities," Lentz says. "We think there is a lack of information in the American public. They don't know what is German in their own history."
This hyphenated approach to presenting U.S. history stems from the fashion in American academia to pull away from explaining the remarkable and difficult story of how so many different peoples came together in a new kind of nation, focusing instead on deconstructing history into ethnically separate stories that can hardly make sense when each is told in its own building. Germans didn't see their version of history reflected in the Holocaust museum, African Americans saw a gap in the story presented at, for example, the Smithsonian's American History museum, and Indians thought their experience was reduced to a caricature in the most frequently told American narratives.
But when each ethnic group creates its own museum, visitors are left without the tools to put each ethnicity's take on history in any useful context. The National Museum of the American Indian proudly opened in 2004 as the Smithsonian Institution's first museum to abdicate its responsibility to present a narrative that seeks to let visitors question the past, warts and all. Instead, the American Indian museum set a new tone by offering what it calls "self-told histories of selected native communities," allowing, for example, a California tribe to offer a display of artifacts from its gambling casino, with not a word about the economic impact of Indian casinos, gambling addiction or conflicts between the tribe and its neighbors.
The German museum presents a different problem, but one that also undermines the public's ability to trust that curators are at least attempting to present facts that visitors can then interpret as they wish: Although Lentz says he wants to show the good and the bad in German American history, he readily admits that the purpose of the museum is to promote German culture -- there's even a kiosk offering travel information on Germany.
"I am dancing on the edge of the volcano," Lentz says. His funding comes mainly from the umbrella group of German American social and fraternal clubs, whose leaders tend to favor a boosterish approach to telling their story. So Lentz says that when he proposed to feature Dwight D. Eisenhower as one of the German American icons at the museum, "some people said, oh, no, Eisenhower treated German POWs badly," an allegation that many historians consider spurious. Lentz was able to persuade his donors to allow the tribute to Eisenhower because as president, "he brought West Germany back into the family of nations through NATO." But the incident illustrates the threat to credibility when each group creates a museum to further its own interests.
"The German American clubs want to show the grandeur of their history," Lentz says. "I am trying to work both sides. If I made the museum some nationalistic thing with beer steins all over the place, it would not work."
Instead, the German-American Heritage Museum presents a version of the past that is at times useful and at times disturbingly incomplete -- demolishing the myth that Congress in 1794 came within a single vote of declaring German to be the official language of the United States, but also offering an account of World War II with no mention of the German American Bund, which held large rallies and parades in support of the Nazis in the years before America entered the war.
A museum can tell a single ethnic group's story with intellectual rigor, as the Holocaust museum does, or in largely celebratory mode, as the American Indian museum does. But whatever the curatorial approach, the proliferation of ethnically separate museums in the capital is an unfortunate step away from the essential work Washington's museums should do to give Americans a place to learn about our past in all its glory and all its folly, to give us the tools to ask tough questions about what brings us together and what keeps us apart.
The German-American Heritage Museum tells us that Elvis Presley was a German American, descended from Presslers who came here in 1710. It doesn't begin to tell us what, if anything, that means. Only if major institutions such as the Smithsonian step up to that task and spurn the dumbing down of museum storytelling can future generations come here to discover how this country has managed to take many and make one, providing a living translation to E pluribus unum.