Gone but Not Forgotten at Fort Totten

I mostly think of Fort Totten as a transfer point, where I have spent a not insignificant portion of my life riding the escalators up or down two levels and waiting for a Red Line or Green Line train. The immediate area includes residential neighborhoods, Civil War Defense Forts that are now mostly green space, a library and recreation center, and new development that is slated to include a future children’s museum.

The station is also near the site of the deadliest collision in the history of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). On June 22, 2009, a moving Metro train crashed into a stopped Metro train between Takoma and Fort Totten, killing nine people (eight passengers and the operator of the moving train) and injuring dozens more. Investigations after the tragedy revealed that a faulty circuit caused the stopped train not to appear on the train control system, so that the system sent the moving train into what looked like clear, empty track.

There are a few tributes to the tragedy in and near the Fort Totten station, including a plaque inside the station and another one on the side of an overpass nearby. The biggest memorial to the accident is Legacy Memorial Park, located about three quarters of a mile from the station.

According to the DC government’s website, the purpose of the site is “meditation, remembrance, reflection, hope and renewal for all affected by the tragedy.” It’s a perfectly lovely little park, with nine artfully sculpted columns in memory of the nine lives lost, a curved wall with a memorial quote, and greenery.

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Legacy Memorial Park, Washington, DC

The location itself is meaningful, as it was at that spot that first responders set up their operations and triage after the collision, according to an article in USA Today. As reported in the article, the memorial offered a sense of closure to victims’ loved ones who attended the site’s opening ceremony in 2015.

In a 2011 NPR interview, art historian Simon Schama discussed the 9/11 Memorial in New York and what generally makes memorials “work.” He spoke of “reconciling…two goals” of “a somber remembrance” for the “immediate rites of grief,” and the need to “reflect on the reasons for the sacrifice.”

Schama’s words hint at why Legacy Memorial Park doesn’t quite work for me as a visitor. I appreciate the design, and the solace that the space provides to family and friends of the deceased.

Yet I can’t help but notice that “Legacy Memorial Park” is the most generic name ever, that the location is not marked on the Fort Totten station’s map of immediate surroundings (even though it’s well within the area covered by the map), and that the walk from station to park is not straightforward or intuitive or pedestrian-friendly.

Is there a metaphor in there? WMATA has not always had the best track record (excuse the pun) for either safety or communication. Legacy Memorial Park – which, like Metro, is meant to be a public good, accessible to people with or without a car – fails in similar areas. It is not the easiest place to locate or safely reach on foot, and once you are there, there is little sense of the “reasons for the sacrifice” which in this case were so tragically preventable.

Schama said that “a free society, a democratic society needs occasionally to ask those questions”–that is, “why they perished.” He was speaking in particular of a memorial to a horrendous terrorist attack, but asking those questions is also necessary when it comes to holding leaders accountable for an unsafe transit system.

The USA Today article linked above quotes a grieving daughter who asked, very rhetorically, “why my mom, why,” reminding readers of the heartbreak that continued to linger six years later for those who lost loved ones in the crash.  At the same time, the article reports that government officials spoke of the importance of investigating WMATA’s safety lapses, changing the culture at the agency so that potential dangers are taken seriously, and providing adequate funding to maintain the system. The goal is to prevent a similar tragedy from ever happening again; this time, “why?” is being asked in a more concrete and action-oriented sense.

Visitors can pause to remember the victims of the train wreck at Legacy Memorial Park (located at the intersection of South Dakota and New Hampshire Avenues NE at the entrance of the Blair Road Community Garden), and we all can honor their memories by working for safer public transportation in the future.

Fort Totten is on the Red, Yellow, and Green Lines.

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#MeToo. If you were not living completely off the grid for the last few months, you all but certainly saw these words on your Facebook feed. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment and assault scandal – followed by a mass reckoning that is still going on, with new horrific stories every day – women posted “#MeToo” on social media to demonstrate how widespread an issue sexual harassment and assault are.

Sexual assault is not a new problem, nor is #MeToo a new hashtag (it actually originated years ago by Tarana Burke), but we seem to be reaching some kind of a tipping point. As The Onion puts it, “Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore told reporters Monday that the women accusing him of pedophilia were only doing so now because ‘shifting sociocultural norms have created an environment in which assault allegations are taken seriously.’”

Women who have recently gone public with stories of abuse that happened years or decades ago may be dismissed or disbelieved with questions like “Why is she only saying it now, after all this time?” when in fact many of these events were reported at the time and not taken seriously then either. In other cases, victims simply stay silent and put up with harassment because they need that paycheck to survive or they fear even worse retaliation.

And the dismissals, disbelief, victim blaming, and retaliation continue to this day. We saw a year ago that confessing to sexual assault on tape, coupled with numerous accusations from a variety of women, is not a deal-breaker for the minority of voters who elected our current president. (As Petula Dvorak wrote, “Any woman who has ever been abused or harassed — which is most of us — knows the scenario: Trump bragged about kissing and groping women. And America’s response was to promote him.”)

Girls and women are not the only people who experience sexual harassment and assault, of course, but #MeToo highlights the fact that it is by and far a problem faced by women – and there is much in our culture that encourages us to simply accept it as our lot in life. Too many girls have grown up with it in their families or communities. Too many women encounter it in their dating lives or simply while walking down the street. There has been a particular focus, though, on the harassment and worse that women face at their workplaces, in their careers.

Rebecca Traister correctly identifies workplace sexual harassment and assault as “a professional and economic crime committed against women as a class.” I have been reading each story (after story after story) through the lens not just of a woman, but of a woman who works to support herself. Donald Trump, Jr.’s quaint comments in the 2016 presidential campaign that women who don’t want to experience workplace harassment should “teach kindergarten” astounded me both in their implication that all elementary schools are magically free of harassment and in the suggestion that simply opting out of the workforce is a viable choice.

For the past year, I have been wondering: if I were being harassed at work, would I feel comfortable confiding in someone for whom sexual assault is not a deal-breaker in a presidential candidate? But then, of course, these crimes happen everywhere, and you can find perpetrators on both sides of the aisle. Maybe it’s just our lot in life. Maybe we’re so used to it that it never occurred to us that we should expect our leaders not to have committed sexual assault. Maybe it didn’t even occur to us that we can choose this as a deal-breaker.

The choice to share one’s personal experience is ultimately an individual one, and there have been tweets and articles about why people may not post “#MeToo” and why you should not assume that your female Facebook friends who didn’t post have never been harassed or assaulted. Perhaps you have a friend who has confided in you about her story, but she did not post “#MeToo” on Facebook. Some have simply written “#MeToo”; some have shared their specific experiences.

Others may only wish to share anonymously.

PostSecret is a space where anyone can artfully express a secret about anything on a postcard and mail it anonymously. There’s everything from lost loves to religious doubts, from memories of suicide attempts to theft of office supplies. Given a chance to send any kind of secret at all, some secret-senders write about being molested or raped – perhaps sharing anonymously what they may not share with anyone in their lives.

While anonymous, a fraction of the postcards is viewed by the public in books (several have been published), on the Internet, and in museum exhibits. Frank Warren started the project at the DC area’s art exhibition event Artomatic in 2004; I caught a glimpse of him and his PostSecret exhibit at Artomatic in 2009. He is listed as one of the visionaries at the American Visionary Art Museum, where I have seen a display of postcards related to the main exhibit topic on both of my visits.

Currently, there is a PostSecret exhibit on view at the National Postal Museum. In the bundled stacks of countless postcards behind a glass display case, the top postcard in one stack tells of trauma in adulthood due to having been molested in childhood. Another states, “my husband treats me like a prisoner.” When I visited Art Museum of the Americas in 2012, a similar project, called Write Home Soon, was part of the Ripple Effect exhibit; there, too, were postcards that would fit the #MeToo hashtag.

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PostSecret exhibit at the National Postal Museum

One month ago, PostSecret’s Facebook page shared a postcard that incorporates the words “#MeToo” – in this case, being attributed to the cat who is relentlessly chased by Pepe Le Pew in Looney Toons. (While many commenters agreed that the cartoon is one of the subtle ways such dynamics are ingrained into our culture, others pointed out that cartoons are not to be taken literally and they don’t go around running off cliffs just because they saw an animated character do it. Looney Toons may not exactly be the consummate example for a discussion on the relationship between the make-believe and the real. However, in light of the recent wave of accusations and the fact that several involve men in entertainment, writers have recently grappled with the age-old question of whether art can be separated from the artist – and how an atmosphere of power and sexual abuse shapes what art is, and is not, made.)

Nina Simon wrote in 2007 about what museums can learn from the success of PostSecret: “PostSecret is self-help through art, through community. It opens people to each other and to themselves. It pulls in creative expression from all kinds of people all over the world. It has web components, but is essentially about physical objects.” Simon clarifies that PostSecret could offer inspiration to any number of user-generated projects. That said, the exhibits of postcards that I have seen in museums and art events reflect the success of this particular format.

As another take on the concept, Mónica Mayer’s El Tendedero / The Clothesline Project currently on exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (which I have not seen in person as of yet), takes the anonymous secret idea and applies it specifically to the issue of sexual assault. In this case, the secrets are written on sticky notes; the art is not in the creative expression of the individual’s contribution but in the whole, the airing of an immense amount of dirty laundry.

A social media post promoting this piece at NMWA predictably got a response questioning whether the piece really has artistic value or is reflective of artistic talent. Such questions can be chalked up to individual taste, or they can be taken in the context of a broader discussion of the purpose of art.

In the case of #MeToo and the forums that allow victims of sexual abuse to share their stories, the exact purpose is being refined as thinkpieces abound discussing the next steps – for surely posting “#MeToo” is a beginning, not an end. Yet it’s refreshing to see that anything is being done – in public discourse, in industries, in museums finding ways to incorporate pieces that are crowd-generated and relevant.

The topic of sexual harassment and violence is often met with a reflexively defeatist sense of inevitability. It’s an inevitability whose logic excuses bumbling men because they simply didn’t know better, while simultaneously dismissing workplace sexual harassment training on the grounds that everyone just needs to be a decent person – thereby absolving individual and institution alike.

PostSecret, Write Home Soon, El Tendedero, and #MeToo turn audiences’ attention to some of the most sordid aspects of what is. A refusal to accept defeatist inevitability will be necessary in order to imagine what could be.

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Book Land at Brookland

Brookland-CUA is near three Catholic sites that served as Weekly Museum Visits for me: the Franciscan Monastery, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and what was then known as the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center. I have heard these three sites collectively referred to as “the trifecta.” The Catholic University of America is right by the Metro station, along with residential streets and some relatively new development, including an Arts Walk.

Among the recent changes to Brookland have been some that are geared toward book lovers. There is a Busboys and Poets, and a Barnes & Noble that functions as CUA’s campus bookstore. Brookland has also been swept up, along with so many other neighborhoods in the DC area, by the Little Free Library movement.

I have written about Little Free Libraries before: the adorable little boxes that often look like a dollhouse or birdhouse or mailbox, that hold a shelf or two where passersby can take or leave a book. The books are free, with no due date and no requirement that readers return either that exact book or return to that exact Little Free Library. Little Free Libraries are about serendipity – happening upon a colorful little house of books, finding that book you’ve been wanting to read or discovering something you may never have read otherwise.

However, in order for the whole concept to work, there have to be books in circulation, with participation from people who return or give away books at these free exchange spots. (I have seen the occasional Little Free Library that asks that the exact book be returned or that a replacement book be given at the same time as taking a book; however, these rules are not in the spirit of the guidelines provided on the website of the Little Free Library nonprofit.)

What exactly is it that I love about Little Free Libraries? Several of the Little Free Libraries in Brookland are in the typical dollhouse/birdhouse/mailbox form, but there are also two with more creative shapes: a robot and a train. Each one is its own piece of art, constructed for the benefit of the public. Many are on the edge of private property; people are using their own space to establish a small public offering, and in doing so, are putting their own places on the map and providing a point of interest for passersby.

A robot-shaped Little Free Library in Washington, DC's Brookland neighborhood.

A robot-shaped Little Free Library in Washington, DC’s Brookland neighborhood.

Of course, the private property is still private property, and a reader is not at liberty to take a book from a Little Free Library and then curl up in the home’s porch swing to read. But the presence of a Little Free Library as a stopping place along the sidewalk shows the potential of residential areas to also, at the discretion of the homeowner, add an element of “third space” to a location.

In other cases, a Little Free Library might be one of many public offerings in a public place. They can be found in community centers, parks, botanic gardens, museums, and in Brookland, in the Arts Walk surrounded by art galleries open to the public.

The initial selection of books may be donations provided by group members (in the case of the Little Free Library at my Sunday Morning Activity), or they may be the paperbacks a steward’s family no longer wants cluttering their house. But as the Little Free Library is put to use by readers walking by, the books should circulate, with an ever-changing selection inside the small boxes. The collection of books available at any given time is determined by the contributions (and the takings-away) of everyday people.

Books, and the many ways I can access them, are among the things I am grateful for this Thanksgiving weekend. For those of you who celebrate, I hope you have had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Brookland-CUA is on the Red Line.

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MOOlogy to the meMOOry of MOO

My family’s precious Olivia Kitty Mittens, aka Moo, got very sick on Monday and had to be put down on Tuesday. She was suffering, and there was no time for us all to say good-bye; only my mother was with her in her last moments.

The grief is overpowering.

What is there to say about Moo in a museum (or moo-seum) blog? Moo may never have gone to a museum in her life, but I’m sure she fancied herself the lioness of every zoo, the angel in every painting, and the queen of every historic castle.


Since it is almost Halloween, here is a picture of Moo from Halloween 2012, when she was the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland.

She loved to explore, whether trying to escape to the great outdoors or perusing nooks and crannies in the house that we humans never see. More than anything else, she loved to eat.

Her other hobbies included sleeping in boxes lined with tissue paper, lying on top of newspapers, and trying to steal food from her brothers. When she was younger, she was more playful, enjoying toys and tunnels and tents.

She had a weird, lifelong appetite for materials like ribbons, plastic bags, cellophane, and foil. All of our Christmas bows have teeth marks.

Our Moo was an extremely pretty kitty. Her face said “Moo,” with the M-shaped markings above her two enormous yellow eyes. She was dressed up on occasion, just long enough to take a photo, and she tended to get typecast: Queen of Hearts, Elsa, the witch, the queen, the princess.

Moo brought happiness to her forever humans (or loyal subjects, in her mind) for 4,306 days. She was not necessarily always a happy cat herself, being full of catitude, but we hope that our love and care brought her some joy over the years.

Moo will always be remembered with reverence for her beauty and majesty, with amusement at her silly antics, and above all, with love.

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Visiting Glenwood at Rhode Island Ave-Brentwood

Rhode Island Ave-Brentwood is not, as far as I know, the nearest Metro to any museum in the usual sense of the word. However, it is near historic Glenwood Cemetery, an example of one of those murky categories of places that can sometimes be considered, or experienced as, museums. While I would not classify most cemeteries as museums, I did include both Arlington National Cemetery and Congressional Cemetery as destinations in Weekly Museum Visits.

Glenwood is a place of history in its own right, having been officially established under its current name in 1854. Constantino Brumidi (painter of so much of the interior of the United States Capitol) and Clarke Mills (who cast the Capitol’s Statue of Freedom) are both buried here, as are some notable leaders and teachers in DC history.

Insofar as Glenwood can be construed as a history museum (or at least, an informal learning environment with historical objects), I would argue that it can also be considered an example of crowd curation. The objects are selected not by curators but by the loved ones of the deceased, created with a personal favorite quote or image in mind.


Glenwood Cemetery

There are gravestones of varying degrees of fanciness, angels and lambs, a touching image of a young man (who died way too young) with his beloved dog. In addition to the grave markers meant to last far into the future, the flowers placed on graves are a more temporary example of objects contributed by members of the public. Glenwood’s website notes that after a woman named Daisy died, “her husband planted each spring a blanket of cultivated daisies on her grave” for the rest of his life.

Since the cemetery is still selling plots and serving as a site for funeral services, the historic cemetery is continuing to witness history as tributes to loved ones are added. New permanent headstones and briefly blooming flowers will continue to shape the cemetery, and the experience of mourners as well as visitors passing through.

Rhode Island Ave-Brentwood is on the Red Line.

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Two Book Festivals

This year marked the 17th annual National Book Festival (NBF) in DC, my 12th, and my parents’ first. It is also the year of the 22nd annual Baltimore Book Festival (BBF) and my first – historically, the two festivals have often conflicted, but this year they were held on different weekends.

At both festivals, authors speak at scheduled times on genre-themed stages. At BBF, as used to be the case at NBF, the stages are outdoors, under large white tents. (There were also some indoor presentations, including readings at the National Aquarium.) NBF’s writers now give their talks in conference rooms at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

Both events can be a little overwhelming. Books are awesome and popular, which means that celebrations of books get crowded.

No matter how many times I go to the Convention Center, it never fails to confuse me. The complex has a north building and a south building, and somehow even a middle building. There are at least two food courts, known as the Uptown Food District (on an upper level) and the Downtown Food District (on a lower level). In the true spirit of promoting literacy, a giant screen at NBF this year pointed to the “Uptwon Food District.”

After I heard Chris Bohjalian and Dava Sobel speak, and my mother and father listened to Nathan Hill, I met my parents for lunch at the Uptown Uptwon Food District. As we finished our meal, I was left with a small piece of pizza. Of course, I wanted to take it with me to eat later.

“Maybe you can get a Herman,” said my mother.

“This is a Herman,” I told her, indicating the cardboard box in which the personal-size pizza had been given to us.

“I mean, maybe you can find a smaller Herman,” she replied.

Yes – in my family, to-go containers for food are called Hermans. They have been for a couple of decades now. It’s a long story (and it has nothing to do with any actual person named Herman).

I share this anecdote because it’s a perfect example of the family slang Emma Donoghue spoke about at the next session I attended, at the Children’s Purple Stage. In her case, the Royal Ontario Museum is called the Uh-Oh, because when her son first saw it as a young child, he thought it had exploded and said “uh-oh!”

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National Book Festival 2017 authors, with varying degrees of photo quality: Chris Bohjalian, Dava Sobel, Emma Donoghue, Dan Chaon, and Ha Jin. The ghostly image of Chaon is a metaphor for the creepiness of his writing.

Next I rejoined my parents for Dan Chaon’s talk, and then I stuck around to hear Ha Jin. A few weeks later, on a hot day in Baltimore, I attended Alice McDermott’s presentation in a tent at the Inner Harbor.

In their pavilions or conference rooms, each with a designated genre, the authors all spoke in some way about the categorization of writers and writing. My parents reported that Nathan Hill said that his book cannot really be categorized. Dan Chaon, in a conversation with Ron Charles of the Washington Post, spoke of the blurring between genre fiction and literary fiction, and the “literary thrillers” he has written.

Dava Sobel began her talk with a comment on the genre stage she’d been assigned. “Contemporary life?” she mused, wondering if the term was “a euphemism for science.”

Sobel told her audience that she wishes someone had told her about science writing when she was in high school. She had always liked both science and writing, but until she discovered the category of science writing, she wasn’t sure how to put her two seemingly disparate interests together.

Chris Bohjalian, who appears to have read every book in the universe, mentioned “doorstops” – those thick tomes, novels that are hundreds upon hundreds of pages long. Doorstops, he said, are still being published (and he rattled off some of his favorites), but they have changed over time: today’s editors would never allow 60 pages of detail on sperm whales or sewer systems in a work of fiction. He also spoke of the differences between his own historical fiction and his novels set in the present: the former deal with people’s willingness to be complicit in evil, the latter are about moral ambiguity.

Emma Donoghue devoted most of her presentation to her recently published book for young children. The listening crowd was largely grown up – people probably like me, who had read something she’d written for adults. One of the first audience questions she answered was whether she would continue to write adult novels (the answer was yes).

At NBF, Ha Jin fielded an audience question as to why his novel Waiting is considered an American novel (and he gave a number of reasons besides the obvious, that he is a Chinese American novelist). Alice McDermott told her readers at BBF that while she has previously been a writer who is also Catholic, it was only her most recent work that is actually a Catholic book.

Besides the difference in venues, NBF and BBF varied in the authors they featured. BBF tends to have less established, more up-and-coming writers, with a few big names like McDermott in the mix. At BBF, there is also more Baltimore history (as one would expect), as well as tents devoted to romance, speculative fiction, and radical thought.

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Alice McDermott at the 2017 Baltimore Book Festival

Questions of categorization also relate to why book festivals belong in a blog about museums. Besides the fact that this particular blogger really loves book festivals, there’s also the symbiotic relationship among museums, libraries, and book events. Museums often have libraries; libraries often have objects and exhibit space. NBF is sponsored by the Library of Congress (which is a museum as well as a library); BBF takes place partially in the National Aquarium. I believe I heard once that libraries and museums are like the two sides of the brain, but now I can’t find the quote anywhere.

Perhaps someday it will be in either a library or a museum that I will encounter the exact quotation and attribution.


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Little and Free

I obtained this Little Free Library coloring page at a previous year’s National Book Festival (and recently finally colored it).


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