I recently wrote a post on the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in which the history of slavery fills a major part of the timeline in what appear to serve as the museum’s history galleries. The themes of forced migration (people stuffed like cargo in boats crossing the Atlantic, or made to march south or southwest in coffles during the country’s expansion and growing southern cotton empire in the first half of the 19th century) and separation from family via the slave trade were prominent threads in the exhibit. At my recent visit to Freedom House Museum in Alexandria, Virginia, these themes were echoed, but in this much smaller museum, the local connections were brought front and center.
Freedom House was once a major site in the slave trade, with enslaved people being held here – in pens – before being sold further south. Today, it operates as a museum with a focus on the local community of the past and present.
Individuals are highlighted, including people from Alexandria, who escaped slavery or fought for its abolition, as well as more recent and contemporary examples of Black Americans and Alexandrians working for racial equality. Visitors learn about Frederick Douglass and Arthur Asche, but a good number of the people featured were much less well-known. Some were people for whom no identifiable photos exist today.
For a class project, young people painted these lesser-known heroes, and their paintings are on display in the galleries next to signage providing more information, as well as, in some cases, historic objects like Annie B. Rose’s typewriter. On the day I visited, one of the young artists was showing her painting to a few of her friends. They read and critiqued her artist’s reflection statement (something included with each of these paintings) while I gawked at how cool it was to be in the museum at the same time as one of its artists.
The block on which this building sits has been built up with other houses where the pens holding enslaved people used to be, so the site has been a bit sanitized – we don’t see the full horror, or even the full structures that held the full horror – that went on here. But the museum does display a miniature version to show what the site looked like back in the day.
For a small museum with heavy content, the museum manages to build in opportunities for rest, reflection, and interaction. There are restrooms on each of the three floors and water fountains on two of them. The museum has spaces to reflect, and to write on an index card what visitors will be thinking about after visiting the museum, or to nominate an Alexandrian to be featured in the museum.
A basket of children’s books on the subject of movements for African American freedom, rights, and equality sits next to one bench amid the exhibits. Although this museum would not be my first choice for bringing young children, the picture books are a nod to inclusivity toward the youngest museum audiences even amid the solemn subject matter of the museum. I would recommend this museum for adults and older kids who are ready to confront difficult history.
I’ll get the details of my personal experience out of the way and then dig into the important content. I had been planning to visit “once things calm down a little,” once the buzz had abated a bit and the museum would be less crowded. I’m a local, I figured, I can visit anytime; I’m not on my once-in-a-decade trip to the east coast or anything like that.
Then, covid happened. As things began to reopen, it still didn’t appear the buzz about this new museum was abating. Finally, taking a day off work on my birthday, I visited (deliberately on a weekday) in spring 2022.
It was a Thursday, but the museum was crowded nonetheless. I arrived in the early afternoon with a ticket already reserved; the signs said that no more tickets were available for the day, suggesting that the maximum number of people who could visit that day were there.
Spending about three hours in the museum (some of this time was in the café), overwhelmed by the crowds and overstimulated by the museum itself, a bit distracted by some escalating personal health concerns, there was a lot of museum that I left unseen. Promising to go back (after all, I’m a local, I can visit anytime), I tried to make the most of my visit knowing that it was my first, but not my last, visit.
The content itself was sobering. Some sections of the museum were more joyous than others, but most of my visit was on the history-themed concourse levels, with a somber focus on slavery, Reconstruction, and inequality that continued (and continues) in various forms even after specific victories were won.
One thing I have heard before is, every nation has had slavery, all throughout history. Wall text toward the beginning of the history section at NMAAHC establishes some important reminders: around 1400, the nature of slavery changed. Only coinciding with exploration and conquering of the “New World” did slavery take on the race-based, lifelong, inherited characteristics of American enslavement. The exhibit text states that after 1400, “Enslaved people were considered property and dehumanized.”
This dehumanization is ever present in the details of the exhibit, just as it was present in the fictional The Underground Railroad (which I read several months ago) and the non-fiction The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (which I listened to a few months ago). As shown in the gallery, slavery wasn’t just its definitive property of being property, of being owned and made to work. It involved forced migration, separation of families, torture, rape, abuse, short life expectancy, and proximity to death.
A quote from William Cowper (a poet writing in sardonic protest of slavery) states in large letters at the beginning of the exhibit: “I admit I am sickened at the purchase of slaves…but I must be mumm, for how could we do without sugar or rum?” Later in the gallery, visitors read another quote, from Indiana Congressman George W. Julian in 1853: “The American people are emphatically a negro-hating people.”
The fact that few white Americans openly claim a hatred-based racism today shows how racism has changed over time but does not mean that racism is over. Visitors walking the gallery see how Reconstruction laws in many ways re-created conditions of slavery even after emancipation, walk through a segregation-era train car with separate (and unequal) seating and facilities for white and Black passengers, and end in a space devoted to the present: the not-so-long-ago historic election of Barack Obama as the first Black president; the Black Lives Matter movement; recent quotes about the forms racism takes today (such as colorblindness).
All of this is in one large section of the museum. (There’s more too. I technically walked through the whole of the gallery, but I missed a lot due to the crowds. I’ll be back!) The past is always present, as the saying goes; the exhibit connects the past to the present.
Other floors in the museum cover subjects like art, music, television, sports, community, and genealogy. These exhibits were certainly less dismal overall than the history area, but are nonetheless connected to, and informed by, the historical events explored on the lowest floors of the museum. After all, the era in which an artist, musician, television star, athlete, community, or family finds themselves is a large part of the context in which they work and live and create.
Regarding those who believe that Black history should be incorporated into the National Museum of American History rather than siphoned off as its own museum, I am in agreement with the first part of that sentiment. But especially after having been to NMAAHC and not viewed it all, I would argue that there is so much more in NMAAHC than can be realistically incorporated into NMAH at any time. These museums are large, but ultimately finite.
The content of NMAAHC is essential enough to warrant a museum dedicated to the subject, in addition to being woven into the narrative and exhibits at NMAH. NMAH and NMAAHC sit side by side not far from the Federal Triangle Metro – logistically easy enough to visit both in a day, but that’s perhaps a lot to try to take in at once.
Federal Triangle is on the Orange, Blue, and Silver Lines.
I recently wrote about interesting restrooms that I have seen at the Huntington Metro station and at a few museums in DC. Here is a museum-like display in a rest stop – primarily a place to use the restroom and get some food – in Delaware that I photographed on a family road trip to Rhode Island in 2015:
With a relatively captive audience (travelers needing the facilities, and more specifically, travelers waiting for other members of their party to use the facilities), these rest stops do make some sense as exhibit spaces, although they are probably not what you first think of when you think of an ideal exhibit location.
The Huntington Metro station is a terminus, all the way at the end of its line and largely residential. It is not the Metro one would use to get to any museum of which I am aware. Its claim to fame is perhaps the self-cleaning public restroom it used to have.
Huntington had a bathroom that could clean itself, which was installed in the public area of the station in 2003 due to post-9/11 restrictions that kept passengers from being allowed to use the restrooms in the stations. (Nowadays, passengers can access these regular restrooms by asking the station manager.)
In 2019, news reports discussed findings that WMATA spent over $500,000 maintaining the self-cleaning restroom at Huntington between 2003 and 2019 (though it was out of order beginning in 2017). It has now been removed altogether. Apparently, it was self-cleaning but not self-financing. Although the restroom was cited as an example of WMATA’s poor spending priorities, it was, for what it’s worth, the thing that made the Huntington station interesting.
Several years ago, when the restroom was in service, I made a point of visiting. I can confirm from a recent trip to the station that the self-cleaning restroom is no longer there.
In October 2011, I wrote about a few interesting museum restrooms – rooms that were not just for rest (or other things restrooms are used for), but that extended the content of the museum even into these unlikely spaces. Here are some examples I’ve come across, all located in DC proper, since that blog post over a decade ago:
At Tudor Place, a visitor washroom features a toilet from 1914 – and instructions on how to use it. Like other realms in which technology and appliances have advanced in a century, this toilet takes longer to flush than modern visitors are accustomed to, and the sign asks that users have patience as they partake of this feature.
O Street Mansion is full of interesting bathrooms. I mean, the hotel/museum/house of wonders and curiosities is full of interesting everything. Many of the restrooms in the mansion are not meant to be used by those touring the building, who should stick to the public restrooms in the common areas (which are not without their interesting objects) and treat the hotel restrooms as part of the scenery. But I couldn’t resist including this piano toilet, which you can use if you stay as a hotel guest in the corresponding room. Arguably, anything and everything is the content area of O Street Mansion, but it especially has a music theme with its famed guitars, so a piano toilet fits right in.
The Eisenhower Avenue Metro stop is very close to the King Street-Old Town stop and is close to a movie theater and a few chain restaurants. It is also near, as its name suggests, a street called Eisenhower Avenue, named after the 34th American president.
Perhaps most obvious, and most riddled with contention during the years it was being built, is the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in DC. Unlike the dome or obelisk that might commemorate a presidential Founding Father, Eisenhower’s memorial is similar to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s in that it shows different stages of his life and presidency, each phase marked by quotations and statuary.
Building a memorial to one of our less polarizing presidents proved to be a polarizing endeavor, with members of Eisenhower’s family objecting to elements of Frank Gehry’s initial design, resulting in years of design tweaks and culminating in a monument at last ready to be unveiled in the middle of a pandemic. Still, the memorial has been heralded as a tribute to a well-liked leader who left a legacy of moderation, bridge building (literal and figurative), and leadership in, and respect for, the military.
I also previously wrote about Eisenhower in a Stamptuary Hall post, when I was first working in the Capitol Visitor Center and finding overlap between the Statuary Hall collection of state statues, and the stamps in the collection of the National Postal Museum where I had previously interned. As such, visitors can see his three-dimensional likeness in the Rotunda of the Capitol as one of Kansas’s contributions to the collection, as well as learn about him at NPM where he is featured on the tiny art form that is a postage stamp.
From a temporarily downed roundabout statue to a finally raised series of statues at the president’s official memorial, there are several places (including a Metro stop in Virginia) honoring President Eisenhower’s service and leadership. But you’ll need to travel to a few other Metro stops in DC proper in order to see them all.
I am a bit late jumping on the Hamilton bandwagon, having recently watched it while visiting a family member who has a Disney + subscription. When the musical first came out, there were articles such as this one detailing Hamilton-related cultural excursions in the DC area: including temporary exhibits at the Library of Congress, National Postal Museum, National Museum of American History, and National Archives.
Most of these exhibits have closed, and based on a search of the Smithsonian website, I surprisingly couldn’t find anything about Hamilton currently on view at the National Museum of American History or National Portrait Gallery. Today (the final day of a brief staycation), however, I did come across some objects relating to Alexander Hamilton and other characters in the musical:
Last month, Columbia, Maryland, held its Books in Bloom festival, with authors giving talks on three (literal or otherwise) stages. I heard two authors at this event: Representative Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and journalist/author Carl Bernstein.
Both writers spoke of different events involving presidential misconduct and corruption. Though Bernstein’s recent book Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom is about his earliest years as a scrappy young reporter, much of the interview revolved around All the President’s Men, the book written with Bob Woodward (who I heard speak at the National Book Festival several years ago)about Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal.
Raskin, meanwhile, spoke about Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy, which delves into both personal family tragedy and the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Bernstein also mentioned the insurrection when stating that some of the best modern journalism has been on that subject.
These are stories we wish were fiction. (I recently tried to read All the President’s Men. The copy on my shelf was used and falling apart, and I opted not to try to get my hands on a better copy, instead giving up on the endless cast of real-life characters who participated in corruption.)
The more recent insurrection is even more terrifying. On a personal note, I have worked three stints at the United States Capitol, once in an office and twice as a red-vested visitor assistant. Had I still been employed there (and had I been on site despite the pandemic), I could have been hurt in the attack.
But the events of that day were horrific at a national level, too. They would be scary and devastating to me if I lived in Washington state rather than Washington, DC. In Raskin’s talk, he tried to make clear how much was at stake, how much could have been lost that day. A group of insurrectionists equal to the number of people whom Bernstein and co-author Bob Woodward were trying to “ring” and “phone” in 1972 could have brought down our democracy as we know it in 2021.
Raskin noted that during the Civil War, a mob waited outside the Capitol during the counting of the presidential votes, but even in 1865, the vote counting continued and the Confederate flag did not wave in the Capitol. But it did wave in the Capitol in 2021, in the hands of rioters egged on by a current president (who, it may be noted, had already been impeached once – and counting – and lost the popular vote twice) who had been insisting both before and after the 2020 election that it was stolen from him.
I will probably write more about the events of January 6, 2021 when it comes time to write about the Capitol South Metro station in the every-Metro-station goal I created for myself, so this won’t be the last I say about the insurrection. And I don’t think Jamie Raskin’s talk last month, or other talks on his current book tour, will be the last he has to say about it, either.
During my first visit to Christ Church (which is an active church with an active congregation, in addition to its buildings and grounds being a historic site), I received a history tour of the sanctuary. On my second visit, I participated in a labyrinth walk. I’ve also walked the grounds a number of times.
Christ Church was in the news in 2017 when the church Vestry decided to move two plaques, honoring George Washington and Robert E. Lee, from the sanctuary to a more history-exhibit-like section of their premises (at the time, to be determined; now they are on a wall on the way to the gift shop). As reported in local news, the reasoning was as follows:
The Vestry wrote in an email to congregants why the two plaques were both being moved together: “The Vestry believes that the memorial plaques to George Washington and Robert E. Lee should be considered together. The plaques were erected at the same time. They visually balance each other, maintaining the symmetry of our sanctuary. The men they memorialize are giants in our nation and were members of this parish.” It was the Lee plaque in particular that motivated the change in the first place; as the email states, “Robert E. Lee has taken an outsized symbolism in the national conversation about race and inclusion.” The email went on to discuss the church’s desire to be a welcoming place for all.
However, some rightwing news sites focused instead on the George Washington plaque and sowed rumors that the church chose to relocate (or other language such as tear down or rip out) it because it might offend people. It’s the kind of claim that makes the “I have to fact-check this” bells ring in my brain. Sure enough, Snopes debunked this reportage.
One sentence in particular from a Washington Times article struck me: “Christ Church, though, said the two men were inextricably linked in history and had to be considered together, since they were erected together and visually balance each other.”
Now this statement sounds a lot like the lines from the email quoted above, but it changes the words into something nonsensical. Were George Washington and Robert E. Lee – two men whose lifetimes did not overlap at all – “erected together” and did they “visually balance each other”? The subject of that clause in the Washington Times article sneakily changes from Washington and Lee, the men, to the plaques at Christ Church that were mounted in their honor.
Perhaps it was just sloppy writing and editing that allowed the historical figures and the historical plaques to be conflated. But in the end, what was a review of the location of the plaques on the part of the church, primarily due to the troubling legacy of Lee, was reported as a denunciation of both men. And so it was that Christ Church was rumored to have taken down the Washington plaque because some find it offensive.
For all the headlines about “tearing down” and “ripping out” or “hiding” or “banning” the plaques, it should be noted that today, they are displayed in a prominent location in the entry to the building housing the gift shop and exhibit space. I recently arrived too late to visit the gift shop or take another tour, but I could see the large plaques in their new space even from outside, looking through a window.
A National Review article states, “But memorials to men such as Washington, Jefferson, and Madison deserve a place in the public square. They were slaveholders, and no doubt they should be remembered and criticized for that grievous misdeed. But the public nevertheless has a compelling interest in honoring their good works for the United States of America, which far outweighs the psychic discomfort that an oversensitive few might feel.”
Arguably, the new location for the plaques at Christ Church comes closer to serving as a public square than does the church sanctuary, which is intended for worship. This passage in the article does acknowledge – yet dismisses – the effects such memorials have on whether people today feel welcome at a school or church, in a park or in a public square. (Meanwhile, the surroundings of the King Street-Old Town Metro and the city of Alexandria as a whole have grappled with questions of Confederate statues and names in other news stories from recent years.)
All this raises the question of whether and how we should honor someone who wasn’t just a president but the first president, whose personal decisions may be a product of his time but are also deeply at odds with a modern community’s mission. The longer our history as a country goes on, and the more presidents we have, the more this question is going to come up. Should our honoring of all past presidents be automatic?
To be clear, there is some active debate (see this article, for example) regarding how we should commemorate slave-owning Founding Fathers such as Washington. There are some, such as the Take Em Down NOLA in New Orleans group, who push for no monuments to enslavers whatsoever. (“ ‘Our position is, we don’t want in your public spaces any slave masters or Confederates, those are people who should not be venerated,’ [Malcolm] Suber said, citing Washington and President Andrew Jackson as figures whose statues should be removed. ‘We have always understood what these statues stood for.’ “)
For other historians quoted in this article, there is a clear line between Washington and Lee, in which Lee’s treason against the United States figures prominently in the analysis. In general, as I read up on this issue, historians and others trying to address these questions say there are major differences between how we should treat a monument to someone like Lee and how we should treat a monument to someone like Washington.
As for my own opinion on these matters, as I have said before: turn to the mission of the place. If you run the (hypothetical) National Museum of Art and Artifacts Commemorating Robert E. Lee, then yes, you should probably keep Lee statues and Lee busts and Lee plaques front and center, along with all the contextualizing and interpretation you do as a museum. If you are a church with a mission that is, in part, to make everyone feel welcome, you will consider objects differently and perhaps draw different conclusions as compared to the conclusions drawn by the hypothetical NMAACREL museum I just invented for the sake of this paragraph.
I would encourage institutions: Put statues and plaques at odds with your mission or values in an exhibit space or place for learning and let settings of honor celebrate the values you want to celebrate. Provide education to visitors about the times the former kinds of objects commemorate, as well as the times when they were made, the motives for having them made and displayed. Help visitors think critically about the art of the “Lost Cause.” You can also put artifacts in storage if they are not relevant to current exhibits; like other objects in museums’ often vast collections, these statues do not need to be on display all the time.
The specific question of memorials to statesmen in churches is for those churches to figure out. Writing in Christianity Today, history professor Thomas S. Kidd notes: “A final guideline is that we should be willing to ask why it is important for us to keep a particular monument standing. Patriotism rightly understood is good and virtuous, but it cannot be a first-order commitment for a Christian. Love of neighbor is a first-order commitment. If a neighbor finds a celebratory monument to be painful or offensive, that’s a pretty compelling reason to consider removing it. It doesn’t damage my faith if any particular historical symbol is taken down, even if I think that taking it down might be an overreaction.”
Meanwhile, the specific details of the Christ Church story and its misconstrued versions raise questions around how people know what to believe and how falsehoods get spread around and why fact-checking is so important. There’s difference in perception and perspective, and then there’s disinformation that is blatantly at odds with reality.
Museums, as educational institutions and as trusted sources of knowledge, can help with teaching this distinction. Visitors can be nudged to consider: what makes a source reliable? (Museums are some of the most trusted sources out there and of course must take that trust seriously.) What is a primary source, what is a secondary source? While some museums are specifically developing detailed programming around critical thinking skills for evaluating the news, I believe that any museum taking its role as a trusted source of information and scholarship seriously contributes to the good that museums can do in this realm.
A church that is also a historic site and visitor destination has its religious teachings that those outside the faith would not consider applicable to themselves, but may put on the history museum hat when it comes to the building or community’s history and serve as a source of secular knowledge to all visitors. (Christ Church, with its myriad hats to wear, might even do this all this while also offering non-denominational labyrinth walks!)
King Street-Old Town is on the Yellow and Blue Lines.