Washington does not need any more national museums, for both practical and philosophical reasons. Certainly, there is prestige and visibility when a museum is located in Washington, but this city is museum-saturated, and we need to share the wealth around the nation.
In the past decade, we’ve veered in a dangerous trajectory that threatens to splinter history into pieces and segregate the stories that are deeply intertwined. The National Museum of the American Indian, part of the Smithsonian, became a magnificent new addition on the Mall, but not without controversy. Its foundation was a huge collection already amassed, needing exhibition space.
Next out of the gate, also under the auspices of the Smithsonian, is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, due to open in 2015. It did not start with a collection and is avidly building one — some might say at the expense of other black history museums around the country and at the expense of its sister institutions in the Smithsonian.
How will this museum affect the stories told at the other Smithsonian history museums? Will it hinder the Museum of American History’s desire or ability to tell stories of African American history? It recently collected an airplane flown by the Tuskegee Airmen. The National Air and Space Museum also has attempted to tell that story. Couldn’t the NMAAHC have been a wing of the Museum of American History?
Now a Latino Museum is on the horizon, pending congressional approval. And do we need a Women’s History Museum? When does the splintering stop? Does the Museum of American History become the white man’s history museum?
From a practical standpoint, how many museums can Washington sustain? There are several issues, among them:
Funding: The Smithsonian’s 19 museums, already underfunded, face a huge backlog of maintenance projects for building upkeep and collections storage.
Attendance: Tourists have a limited amount of time and the majority of them will continue to visit the large museums before they visit the more-specialized ones (the Air and Space Museum being the exception — it is specialized).
Sadly, while museums have tried valiantly to diversify audiences and attract more people of color, there are cultural habits that are hard to change. Some demographics don’t tend to spend leisure time in museums. I wonder about attendance at a Latino museum. Are empty museums meeting their mission?
Congress needs to think carefully before it funds another museum.
Tim Grove is a museum specialist from Falls Church.
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