The D.C. Peace Museum That Never Happened

A promised public museum at the congressionally chartered U.S. Institute of Peace failed to materialize. Why?
The exterior of the U.S. Institute of Peace near the National Mall. (U.S. Institute of Peace)
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The United States Institute of Peace, a congressionally funded shrine to nonviolent resolution of conflict, stands out in a cityscape punctuated by stout, flat-topped buildings bound by D.C. height limits. In contrast with nearby war memorials on the National Mall and sculpted military figures on horseback with swords raised, its roof evokes a dove with wings spread, soaring heavenward.

Sitting on a prime piece of Washington real estate, the Peace Institute for years promised to welcome people into its distinctive building by opening a 20,000-square-foot “public education center” — best described as a peace museum. When Congress delivered $100 million toward the $186 million headquarters in 2004 — with the rest to be raised privately — USIP publications outlined a space of exhibits and interactive displays that would “educate the public about peacemaking and peacebuilding, using state-of-the-art technologies and programs.” A strategic plan, updated in July 2016, noted that it was a priority to determine “whether to create a public education center in the space intended for this purpose when our headquarters was designed.”

The museum, however, has not been built. And though the Peace Institute had predicted that the education center would host 500,000 visitors per year, the building as a whole welcomed just 50,000 visitors in a typical year before the pandemic.

As with many federal initiatives, the Peace Institute — which was established by Congress in 1984 as an independent center, and in 2011 moved into its current headquarters — has experienced controversy and wrangling over funding. The institute survived a 2011 attempt by then-Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.) and Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) to defund it, with Chaffetz and Weiner writing in the Wall Street Journal that the institute was “a case study in how government waste thrives.” Today it receives about $45 million in annual congressional funding.

It seems worth asking whether an institution that accepts those federal funds should be doing more to engage the public. In 2007, as the building was under construction, Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott noted how its public and private spaces would be “kept hermetically apart in that strange way that Washington manages to be both open to the public and obsessive about hierarchy and privilege.” After its opening, he wrote that “the building feels closed off from the city,” with the best views belonging to the elite, while the public is “kept to the ground floor and the basement, where the exhibition space will expand after funding comes through.”

A decade later, the failure to establish such an exhibition space surprises and disappoints Moshe Safdie, the building’s American Canadian Israeli architect, who says he was “very involved” in donor presentations. He recalls pitches centered on substantial space being allocated to the public, with an entrance directly off the Mall. “That was such a big item in the board’s mind and the president’s mind,” Safdie told me. “It baffles me that in 10 years, there hasn’t been the will and the funds to do it. It’s not big money. The space is there. Maybe the 10th anniversary is the occasion to bring that up and say, ‘Hey, let’s get that done.’ ”

The Peace Institute’s bustling great hall. (U.S. Institute of Peace)

One rainy February afternoon, I toured the building — the culmination of more than two months of scheduling. My goal was to search for clues about the planned site of the museum, which was supposed to feature interactive displays among its exhibits.

The institute functions today as a policy-focused think tank, employing more than 300 people. It brings together diplomats and leaders from warring factions to discuss nonmilitary alternatives to conflict; it also anoints scholars and fellows, while holding seminars on such topics as “Empowered Women Help Create a More Peaceful World” (March 29), “The Catholic Church and Peacebuilding” (Sept. 24, 2020) and “Healing Afghanistan Through Art” (Jan. 28, 2020).

During my tour, I was allowed on floors where the business of peacemaking is done. But I was not allowed into the empty basement where the museum itself was supposed to reside, told there was nothing to see except a vacant, windowless area.

Nor would Peace Institute senior press officer J. Paul Johnson address my museum questions for the record. “A significant element of our mandate is to help engage the American public in peace-building,” Johnson wrote recently in an email. “Our building is a wonderful way to do this. We’re able to host students from schools across the country [as well as] top national security leaders here in Washington.” He continued: “The USIP’s headquarters is an iconic symbol of America’s commitment to peace. Our location on the National Mall across from the Lincoln Memorial sends a powerful message that peace is an American priority.”

The public education center was an early hope of Richard H. Solomon, the late former ambassador who was USIP president from 1993 to 2012, recalls Tara Sonenshine, former executive vice president for the institute. “It was ultimately scaled back to scheduled-only tours,” she told me. “A public entrance and full public programming would have required lots of staff and resources taken away from the peace-building mission, not to mention security.” The institute, she argues, “fits its mission as a congressionally mandated institution to work on publicly available reports” — which “seems appropriate rather than trying to operate a museum.”

Safdie singled out Jim Marshall, a former congressman and the institute’s president from 2012 to 2014, as the main reason the public education center never got off the ground. In an interview, Marshall, who lives in Georgia, said he doesn’t think it was ever a good idea for the Peace Institute to welcome the public en masse. “That might have been a security issue,” he told me. “The Iraq War was still going on. We were worried about terrorist attacks.” Agents caught “a couple of al-Qaeda-linked characters” casing significant sites, he said. “We were very security conscious.”

Marshall also questioned whether a peace museum was an institutional fit. “I don’t think that the institute would be in the position to really educate a large portion of the population about the importance of peace through exhibits at the institute. No way,” he explained. “In publications, certainly. Reach online. Those things would be much more helpful than just exhibits somewhere in the institute.”

While visiting USIP, I was told that the public education center plans were scrapped 15 years ago, long before the building even opened. But that account doesn’t explain why the merits of a public education center were still being weighed in the 2016 strategic plan.

I was also told that the plans were scrapped because of difficulty raising money. Given this, I wondered whether the institute would leap at the chance to finally create the center if a donor came forward to finance it. USIP officials opted not to answer the question on the grounds that it was theoretical.

To me, all the clashing explanations of why the museum was never created — and the disagreement about whether it should even exist — only heighten the core philosophical problem for the institute. Perhaps the price tag of the building, its architectural gravitas and its placement near the National Mall are partly justified by the need to draw foreign dignitaries to the site for programming. But shouldn’t what’s available to the elite also be available to the taxpayers who are footing part of the bill?

A peace museum in Washington could make an impact simply by admitting the public into a space where the practical work of peace promotion is carried out.

To gauge the feasibility of a museum in a highly secured building, one need only walk diagonally across the street from the Peace Institute to the heavily fortified Harry S. Truman Building, home of the U.S. State Department. Before the pandemic, the National Museum of American Diplomacy welcomed visitors into the building for a preview exhibition. The museum was scheduled to open next year, but the pandemic pushed the timeline to early 2024, according to Mary Kane, who was the museum’s director when we spoke but has since left that post.

Security at the diplomacy museum is akin to what visitors encounter at other D.C. museums. And the museum got no pushback from diplomatic security despite groups coming in “all the time up until covid,” Kane says, noting that tours would go all afternoon on Fridays. “Being attached to the State Department is actually an asset,” Kane told me. “I think we will be a very intriguing stop for a lot of visitors. When do people actually get to go to the State Department?” If the State Department can safely host visitors in an on-site museum — and if, before the pandemic, the public could schedule self-guided “FBI Experience” tours at the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s headquarters — the Peace Institute presumably could find a way to open a public museum, as promised.

For now, if you want to visit an American peace museum, you’ll need to travel several hundred miles. According to the International Network of Museums for Peace, there are 300 peace museums worldwide — but the only one in the United States is the Dayton International Peace Museum, in Ohio, where the Dayton Accords were signed in 1995 to end the conflict in the Balkans. “We feel a little bit alone in the world,” says Kevin Kelly, the museum’s executive director. “There’s no reason why we are the only brick-and-mortar organization like this. It gives credence and power to the idea that peace is not just the absence of war, but it’s something more than that. It should be valued and fostered.”

The 17-year-old Dayton museum focuses on education and creating a more equitable, civil and peaceful world. It also strives to teach “peace literacy,” which Kelly figures isn’t dissimilar from other forms of literacy. “In the United States, we have something like 450 war museums,” he told me. “We just have one peace museum.”

Back in D.C., Kane and Jane Carpenter-Rock, the acting director of the State Department’s diplomacy museum, see significant value in bringing the public into the agency to learn about diplomacy — which, of course, isn’t too far afield from peace. Carpenter-Rock says the museum increases transparency and demystifies diplomacy and the State Department to visitors. “I call it pulling back the veil a little bit, so that people can really see what we do,” she told me. “They won’t value it until they really see and understand what diplomacy is.” Across the street, it’s unclear why people couldn’t get a taste of peacemaking too, and why a peace museum couldn’t inspire a new generation to be more, well, peaceful.

The building, which sits near the Lincoln Memorial, evokes the wings of a dove. (U.S. Institute of Peace)

Indeed, a peace museum in Washington could make an impact simply by admitting the public into a space where practical work is being carried out. Safdie’s recent design for the headquarters of the Israel Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem includes a catwalk, from which the public can look down upon archaeologists in labs. Being on-site and seeing science in action animates research for visitors, he believes. Something similar could be done at the Peace Institute, despite its lack of artifacts. Safdie designed the offices with glass walls facing the atrium, so visitors can look up and see staff at work. “That would really be meaningful to people in a way that wouldn’t be in just an abstract museum. It would bring the work of the center to life,” he told me. “I think there’s a potential there, which is not just an exhibit about peace, but something about the moment. Action where you can intervene and make a difference.”

The architect, who recently turned 83, is optimistic about a peace museum, and if the institute decided tomorrow to go forward, it wouldn’t be too hard to get up and running, he says. Access systems for elevators and escalators are in place. Safdie and his team would help “activate” the space, turning on heating and air conditioning, distributing wiring and otherwise completing it. “It’s now a shell space. It’s empty. It’s waiting for the exhibits,” Safdie says. He figures it would take six months to pull together exhibits; the Peace Institute would need to enlist an exhibit design group, which could report to a content committee. “The messages and the content should come from the institute,” he says. “It’s not a museum that is about artifacts. It’s a museum about communications. A lot of it would be media. A lot of it would be interactive.”

A curator would be needed to refresh content and keep it timely. Visitors would then use the Mall entrance on Constitution Avenue, enter the great hall and look up at Peace Institute staff in their offices. They could take in the building’s vast volume — and its work. We all know what war looks like: kinetic, bloody, terrifying. But peace? Isn’t it time to really show that too?

Menachem Wecker is a writer in Washington.

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