Museums of Agony

The Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington is an impressive presence. I wondered how those who commissioned it had decided on the final design given that so many very different designs had been rejected in favor of this layered latticework of upturned terraces, and with whether the architecture would seem dated in a generation or so. The actual collection, covering the origins of slavery up through Jim Crow and the Second Reconstruction, begins in the deep basement, reached through an elevator, and then the visitor moves up in space as he or she approaches the present. I was impressed by the ability of the museum to move along its crowds, still quite large now that it is more than a year since the museum opened. I was also impressed by the various guards who were very helpful in assisting visitors, which is very different from the guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where they are likely as not to give you incorrect information about how to proceed to a room you want to visit. I was less impressed, however, by the narrative supplied by the placards that accompanied the artifacts, dioramas and other illustrations for the history of black slavery in the United States.

I was told that the mission of the museum was in part uplift and so there was less attention paid to the pure misery of living under slavery than I, for one, would have presented. Yes, there was a literal slave block made of stone from which slaves had been displayed before being sold, and there were well known pictures of the way slaves had been packed onto ships. But the pain and misery were not a focus. The museum's mission, I agreed, was to educate a younger audience to what slavery was like and I was heartened to see so many children among the visitors, but I thought the museum should not pull its punches for that reason. The children should learn just how awful it was so that they can appreciate how dear is their own liberty as well as how grateful they should be to those who purchased liberty for the descendants of slaves. The past can make us understand just how fragile are liberties even when they are fought for.

I was even less impressed by the ideology that was embodied by these placards, which was that it was the practice of slavery that made possible the rise of European dominance over the world and also made possible the Industrial Revolution, which was based on manufacturing store bought clothing (true enough) which was sold to slaveholders to cloth their slaves (not so true because whites were the major customers). Europe arose to dominate the world because of the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the coherence of the nation state, and the Protestant Ethic. Slavery was an atrocity committed by that system, though slavery had existed before that, there having been more white slaves under Muslim rule in Africa than there were black slaves until the middle of the seventeenth century. It is special pleading to insist that slavery was the cause of European and Atlantic prosperity when slavery was a retrogressive system born out of the fact that labor was the only scarce resource for production in the sugar and tobacco colonies, given that land was cheap and so was shipping and planting. What is awful does not have to be redeemed by saying that great things followed from it to the benefit of the exploiters. This is simple minded Marxism (or, if you prefer, very wise Marxism) saying that there is a natural balance between injustice and the accumulation of wealth. The exploited are needed to make the wealthy that way. But maybe such a concern with getting the story straight is a preoccupation of people like me. I understand that the copy for the placards was left to the museum designers who were contracted to carry out the project. I would have thought that the responsibility would have been placed on a name historian who had to answer for what was put up there in the way of words.

The U. S. Holocaust Museum, also in Washington, took a very different course in its portrayal of the agony of a people. It did not follow Ved Hashem, the Jerusalem museum devoted to the Holocaust, which engages in a modernist design of the sort proposed for the African American Museum and also abandoned. Rather, The U. S. Holocaust Museum looks like a giant mausoleum and a friend of mine is correct in saying that once you disappear into it you wonder whether you will ever get out. The whole architecture is spooky and grim and the exhibits are in no way upbeat, perhaps because theat museum has the "advantage" of having photographs to document what happened while the portrayal of slavery during its first three centuries in the United States does not, and reference has to be made, in the Museum of African American History and Culture, to historical figures, heroes, who are more the stuff of legends than anything else, history not arriving before the slave rebellions of the early nineteenth century, which were squashed and fruitless, just as were the rebellions against Nazi rule, as if either group had to prove that they disapproved of their plight, the conditions speaking for themselves. I still remember very vividly how small were the boxcars into which hundreds of Jews were crowded on their way to the death camps, many lucky enough not to survive the journey. I was similarly moved by the rough cabin in which slaves in the South lived, one of which was transported North to serve as an exhibit in the museum.

The question is whether we need more museums to atrocities that have occurred in American history. I suppose we could use a museum on the Mall to the genocide against the American Indian or to the ghastly state of early industrial labor in the cloth producing mills in New England. What we have learned since the Holocaust is that there are no end of atrocities. It was appropriate that students at Parkland School adopted “Never Again!” as their slogan because it indicates a desire to express moral outrage rather than just disapproval of one or another policy, whether about guns or immigration or whatever. I also wonder whether, to balance things off, and to satisfy my own secular vision, we need a museum to progress, even if that idea is from another time, celebrated at expositions and World’s Fairs from 1876 through 1964. Alexander Graham Bell showed off his telephone at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876; the light bulb--many, many light bulbs--illuminated the Chicago Exposition of 1893 and the Buffalo World’s Fair of 1901; and the Flushing Meadows World’s Fair of 1964 featured rides into the world of computers, though what I remember from that was the introduction of Belgian waffles to this country. Progress was over.

The deeper question, however, is what museums are supposed to be about. Historically, they were about art (as in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) or about artifacts, such as those displayed in the American Museum of Natural History. You had to go there to see these objects that were still in the past as they were also in the present, and so subject to a metaphysics of time travel, the items brought forward and so still what they always were but now, in their new setting, constituting a commentary on or an explanation of the past.

But museums as ways to make an argument, to give an explanation of history through a verbal narrative, are a different kind of thing entirely, and certainly not the best way to learn any body of material, that better presented by textbooks and histories and even by Wikipedia. Is a museum nothing more than an issue of Life Magazine spread out to cover the walls of galleries? “Life” did it better. What does housing such a display in a building called a museum does to engross the people drawn there partly by its being a shrine, partly because it is a destination point for a visit downtown? Museums may have outgrown the original concept of what it meant to be a museum.

One new definition of a museum is that it is the story of a civilization or of many civilizations rather than of some time from the past. That is certainly true of the Metropolitan Museum of Art which has, among other things, the American Wing which makes you think what there is in common between Paul Revere silverwork, Tiffany glass, Frank Lloyd Wright staircases, and the delicate fluting of greenish turn of the century gas lamp posts. It isn’t the craftsmanship because other nations also have that. It may just be that all of these things were done in this country and so constitute our civilization. There doesn’t have to be any reference to agony.

The African American Museum does the same thing. It tops off its collection with recent culture, including James Brown and Colin Powell, and so will familiarize children with the recent past and make their elders recall those times with nostalgia. I was very taken with the metal school lunchbox which featured Dianne Carroll as Julia, her pioneering sitcom that was on television in the Sixties, as that was part of the decoration of the very good cafeteria in the museum. I remember her as the chanteuse who couldn’t stay at the hotels in Miami Beach where she performed and as the one for whom Richard Rodgers crafted a starring role in “No Strings”, one of his last Broadway musicals. And I remember her, towards the end of her career, proclaiming that she was going to portray “the first Black bitch on television”, which she did on a nighttime soap opera. An outstanding career, wonderful contributions, and part of the collection of figures that fill Black history, like so many stars on a Hollywood-like Walk of Stars. That is the substance of Black culture, and there is good reason to celebrate it or even just enjoy it, as one would a museum of Irish or Italian history.