“Christmas at the museum” means model trains, caroling in the atrium, seasonal decorations at historic houses, and spectacular light displays in zoos and gardens. “Easter at the museum” celebrations are much less frequent. A few DC sites have taken advantage of Easter as a time to draw visitors in with special events – and to risk controversy by reaching out to historically marginalized communities.
The White House is a living museum – a visitor attraction and historic site as well as the seat of the leader of the nation. One opportunity for the public (as determined by lottery) to visit the White House is the annual Easter Egg Roll on Easter Monday. This event began in 1878 under President Rutherford B. Hayes, and today it includes performances, games, and storytelling in addition to egg rolling. When President Obama took office, he reached out to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender organizations and allocated tickets for families headed by same-sex couples. In addition to the many positive reactions that followed, Obama was criticized for, on the one hand, reaching out to include GLBT families at all, and, on the other hand, offering what seemed like a token gesture rather than enacting substantial change in the arena of GLBT rights. Nevertheless, the inclusion sent a message that the family-friendly Easter Egg Roll would be friendly to all kinds of families.
On the subject of both colorful eggs and outreach to GLBT visitors is the year-round work of Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens, unique in its role as a museum that actively engages in such outreach. Additionally, Hillwood works with Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption (FRUA) to educate about Russian heritage through the museum’s collection of Russian decorative arts.
With a collection of Faberge eggs, Hillwood is well equipped for an Easter celebration. Their Faberge Egg Family Festival, held last weekend, was also a celebration of Russian culture and included Russian music and storytelling, costumed interpretation, and a workshop in which children could decorate their own eggs. The event had a discounted price for FRUA members.
At the National Zoo, Easter Monday is an occasion for outreach to African American families each year, and it has a long history of such. According to the Smithsonian Archives, “By the turn of the [20th] century the National Zoological Park had become a popular spot to spend Easter Monday. Many of the visitors were African Americans who worked as domestics and had off the day after the Easter holiday.” The tradition has continued for over a century. Some backlash ensued when recent Easter Monday celebrations at the zoo were marred by violence among teenagers. Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy wrote in 2009 that the idea of a celebration for black families at a zoo is an idea whose time has passed: “why would anyone want their heritage celebrated at a zoo, especially black people?” Milloy further wrote that the annual event should have ended after the episode of violence in 2000. The Zoo frames the event in more positive terms, stating that they proudly commemorate this tradition that is open to all.
Museums may be criticized in some corners for reaching out to certain demographics at all, while other people raise valid questions about how this outreach is undertaken and whether it reeks of tokenism. Still, these sites are standing strong in their efforts, and their Easter events continue for family audiences.
There is the additional criticism that Easter events are inherently exclusive, as one Washington Post commenter wrote: “If and when they [the White House] ever find a way to make this an event that is inviting to the many American families who do not celebrate Easter, THAT will be kid-friendly.” Nevertheless, what struck me as a similarity among these three events is a conscientious effort toward inclusiveness to a historically underserved community. I do not pretend to know whether there is anything about Easter, in any of its religious or secular traditions, that inherently encourages inclusion or reaching out. But Easter and spring are a time for celebration, and inclusiveness and diversity are something to celebrate.