Information for the Nation at Union Station


Union Station is a hub of activity: Metro trains, commuter trains, buses, government buildings, restaurants, museums. It is the closest Metro station to Sewall-Belmont House (a Weekly Museum Visit) and my internship at the National Postal Museum. The Supreme Court and the Senate side of the Capitol complex are also nearby; I exited the Metro system at Union Station every day while I held jobs at the Capitol.

More recently, I visited the bookstore and museum portions of the Government Publishing Office (GPO). The exhibit space highlights the agency’s mission of “Keeping America Informed”, which is near and dear to my heart. (My blog’s name is a reference to the seminal 1992 report Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums, in which the writers proclaimed museum educators’ desire for “an informed and humane citizenry.”)

In visiting both the museum and the bookstore, I saw a variety of titles that GPO had published over the years. There were books about outer space and National Parks, dry-looking tomes full of government regulations and colorful activity books for kids, citizenship test study guides and glossy photo books honoring the military. The titles varied: Public Pages of the Presidents. Let’s Have Fun with Fire Safety. Mindfulness and Judging.

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I don’t know this keyboard layout… 1910 Linotype Machine at the Government Publishing Office exhibit

One interesting thread throughout the small exhibit was the history of employment practices at the agency. As I’ve mentioned in other recent posts, I’m interested both in internal labor aspects of museums and in seeing an element of self-reflection at museums that tell the story of a profession or professional body. While this small exhibit space certainly did not provide an exhaustive treatment of either theme, I appreciated seeing such ideas addressed at all.

According to the wall text, in 1924, GPO was the first government agency in which employees won the right to collectively bargain for wages. As the exhibit explored technological changes at different points in history (until 2014, the agency was called the Government Printing Office), the text emphasized that despite worries that technology upgrades would result in lost jobs, such fears did not come to fruition.

Moreover, a description of two cases involving sex and race discrimination, respectively, at GPO in the 1970s and 1980s, ends with: “Although difficult, these two cases opened the door to fairer treatment and helped form the body of law that protects all Federal workers from discrimination today.”

While I would not recommend GPO if you are looking to learn about difficult history in-depth, it’s nice to see a museum not shy away from it. The GPO exhibit and bookstore are interesting places to drop by if you like books, government history, or exploring lesser-known sites. It may be off the beaten path in the sense that it is not on every tourist’s bucket list, but it is just a couple of blocks from the Metro station.

Union Station is on the Red Line.

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Interpret with Care at Judiciary Square


Six years ago, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial (NLEOM) and its Visitors Center made up one of my Weekly Museum Visits. The memorial itself is located across from the National Building Museum, and surrounds commuters using one of the Judiciary Square Metro exits as they ride up the escalators. A few blocks away, on 7th Street between the Archives and Gallery Pl-Chinatown Metros, is the Visitors Center. Other museums near Judiciary Square include the Koshland Science Museum and Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum, which were also among my Weekly Museum Visits.

In my 2011 write-up of NLEOM, I stated:

“The Visitors Center consists of a store that has a few museum-like elements: a touch-screen that allows visitors to watch videos about the memorial, a time line of notable events in the history of United States law enforcement, and a floor plan and exhibit descriptions for the museum that will open in 2013….I hope that [the National Law Enforcement Museum] will include similar [to what the Newseum does for journalism in the Ethics Center and the News History gallery] treatment of the ethical questions involved in law enforcement.”

Oh, what a six years it has been.

National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, photographed at night in 2013

National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, photographed at night in 2013

For starters, the museum did not open in 2013. (Construction just started in 2016, and the website currently announces a 2018 opening.) More notable, however, is that when I wrote those words in 2011, I was not predicting how much interest, controversy, and news coverage surrounding this topic would explode in the coming years.

While 2013 did not bring us the National Law Enforcement Museum, it did see the first use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, on July 13 after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. The responses of museums to the August 2014 death of Michael Brown and many, many similar incidents have been collected using the hashtag #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson. I have written of a few local (Baltimore) examples of museums addressing the subject here and here.

NLEOM’s webpage shows a total of 21,183 deaths of on-duty U.S. police officers from 1791 through 2016, plus 85 in 2017 so far. Killings of police officers have steadily decreased over the last few decades. No nationwide statistics are kept on the number of people killed by police, but the Washington Post started keeping track in 2015 and counted 965 that year, followed by 963 in 2016.

In short, too many people are dying.

Plenty of people and groups – museum people and organizations, religious groups, secular non-profits, politicians, and everyday Americans—have made statements that are thoughtful, nuanced, and holding faith in the idea that we can do better, acknowledging both specific tragedies and systemic patterns and problems. I won’t try to reinvent the wheel by writing my own. Instead, I will just rhetorically ask: To those who think that the present state of policing and rate of fatalities of black citizens by law enforcement is fine the way it is and does not need to be critiqued or improved, under what circumstances would you think that there is a problem? What would be your tipping point?

As I write about these issues and questions, I am eager to know how they will be addressed by NLEM when it opens. I still hope that the museum will interpret its collection with care and reflection, presenting both the good and the bad to the public. Right now the museum is only in its construction phase. The memorial itself, of course, still stands, with its list of names and its watchful lion statues. And while the museum does not have a physical presence yet, it does have an online presence. Interestingly, I learned from the website that part of its funding comes from asset forfeiture, the controversial practice of police officers seizing money and property on the suspicion that these assets were involved in a crime, even if no arrests were made.

The mission statement of NLEM has shortened since I posted it in 2011, to “The mission of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund is to tell the story of American law enforcement and make it safer for those who serve.” As a curious person who loves museums, storytelling, and safety, I can end this post exactly as I ended my 2011 post: “I look forward to visiting once the museum is built.”

Judiciary Square is on the Red Line.

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Museums and Memorials


Do you like to read? Do you love to be surrounded by books, reread old favorites, discover new ones? Maybe you love to spend time at the public library, or with your own personal book collection.

Perhaps you will never forget a few favorite lines from a couple of favorite books, and maybe you have some of these quotations on bumper stickers or hanging on your wall.

But you don’t have every word of every book displayed in a place of prominence as an inspiring quote.

In a similar vein, you may be passionate about history and enjoy seeing artifacts from the past. But not every interesting relic from history deserves to be put on a pedestal.

Over the last few weeks, momentum for taking Confederate statues down from places of honor has reached a crescendo, and people throughout the United States (and yes, there is Confederate statuary in states far-flung from the actual region that seceded) are discussing the differences between memorials and museums. The statues of Lee, Davis, and others that currently tower over parks and sit in front of courthouses could instead join the collections of museums with a relevant content area. They would not need to be on display at all times. Nor would their interpretive use be limited to exhibits on the Civil War; they are also curiosities from the later eras in which most of said statues were commissioned and erected.

The reasons for the recent removal of several statues and the active debate on many others have been articulated in a number of speeches and articles – far too many writings to be posted here. So instead I’ll just post a few favorite lines.

“…removing — or moving — Confederate monuments is not historical erasure. The same logic could have been used to justify maintaining, after 1964, signs that identified ‘Negro water fountains,’ ‘Colored waiting room,’ and the other markers of Southern segregation.”

-W. Fitzhugh Brundage, in the article “I’ve studied the history of Confederate memorials. Here’s what to do about them” published on Vox.com.

“Effective museum interpretation would not stop there. It would address the reoccurring questions surrounding this symbol. Why do people find the flag offensive? Why are other people so attached to the flag? Why do some people who embrace the fullness of Southern pride, including the Confederate flag, not see themselves as racists?”

-Public historian Aleia Brown in a 2015 Slate article which outlines what museums would need to do in order to provide the proper context for such objects – and argues that museums so far have not proven themselves up to the task

“Sometimes the Rebel battle flag and the bronze generals on horseback stand for badass rebellion and hell-raisin’. Sometimes they stand for a genteel and deliberately vague conception of ‘heritage and history,’ all too perfectly captured in the noxious and seductive ‘Gone With the Wind,’ a film that overwrote actual history for several generations of white Americans. Sometimes they stand for overt and vicious racism.”

Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir on the symbolism contained in Confederate memorials

“In a public place, if it is offensive and people are taking issue with it, let’s move it. Let’s put it somewhere where historically it fits with the area around it so you can have people come to see it, who want to understand that history and that individual.”

-Bertram Hayes-Davis, great-great-grandson of Jefferson Davis, quoted in a CNN article

“2nd Place Participant”

-A banner that Rebecca McHood added to a Confederate monument in Phoenix, highlighting the cognitive dissonance that must be experienced by those who disparage participation trophies but glorify the Confederacy

“These Confederate monuments are historically significant and essential to understanding a critical period of our nation’s history. Just as many of them do not reflect, and are in fact abhorrent to, our values as a diverse and inclusive nation. We cannot and should not erase our history. But we also want our public monuments, on public land and supported by public funding, to uphold our public values.”

Statement from the National Trust for Historic Preservation

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Vigil for Charlottesville


A few weeks ago, I was asked to give part of today’s Sunday morning address at my Sunday morning activity. The topic would be one of my favorites: my love of pets. I was daunted by the request, both the public speaking part and the preparation part, which would be adding something else to my plate. (My plate might not objectively have a lot on it, but it’s about as full as I can take. It’s really more like a little saucer.)

I apologetically declined, and in the end, my words wouldn’t have fit the bill anyway, as the talk was described as consisting of people speaking about “what (not whom) they love.”

Tonight, at a vigil/rally held in response to the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia and the deaths of one counter-protester (intentionally rammed into by a white supremacist’s car; many others were injured in this act of terrorism) and two police officers, I marveled at how quickly this gathering and other events around the country came together. A few of the speakers, with gratitude to the organizers and attendees, mentioned this fast response. Having recently said no giving a very brief address that I would have had weeks to write, I was all the more impressed.

People had about 24 hours to plan the vigils, spread the word, prepare remarks, and make signs. (Some of the signs I saw may have witnessed many marches and rallies over the last months and years. Others, making specific reference to Charlottesville and Heather Heyer, could not have been made before yesterday.) When two young women faced the crowd to sing “America the Beautiful,” another vigil attendee spontaneously joined them and accompanied them on guitar. Organizers of this Vigil for Justice not only brought everyone together, but also brought flowers and bottled water to give to the crowd.

We had gathered next to the World War II Memorial, surrounded by monuments. One man who spoke noted what I’d been thinking: the location, a memorial to those who died fighting Nazis, was a fitting place to denounce a new generation of Nazis. Several speakers and sign-holders alluded to relatives who had fought in World War II.

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World War II Memorial, with Vigil for Justice taking place on the far side of the Reflecting Pool

When I was younger and I had grandparents who lived in South Carolina, my family often drove down to visit in summer or over the holidays, with stops for sightseeing along the way. I would get Charlottesville (Virginia), Charlotte (North Carolina), and Charleston (South Carolina) mixed up. These days we know these cities by the tragedies they’ve sustained in recent days and years.

This post has been full of personal reflections. Heather Heyer, who was killed by the car that slammed into the crowd of counter-protesters, was three years younger than me and had the same job title I have. I struggle mightily with reproof against people “centering themselves” in conversations on these issues, because everything I was taught in my training to be an educator indicated that making personal connections is a huge component of how humans learn.

That said, my own post processing my own thoughts on my own blog is a beginning, not an end. There are and will continue to be so many other voices for me to hear and read and learn from. There will be more statements condemning white supremacy from writers and religious organizations and museums and everyday people and elected officials, even if not from the president himself. There will be more events to attend, donations to make, and articles to share. There will be at least one million pieces of writing more worthy of being read than this post. (I welcome any recommendations for what to read.)

And there will, without a doubt, be more tragedies that demand our response and action. We can all hope there will be no more white nationalism, but pretending we have already achieved such a world doesn’t do us any good.

 

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DC’s Quirky Temperance Fountain


It’s surrounded by museums (National Archives, United States Navy Memorial and Naval Heritage Center, and more if you walk just a block or two in almost any direction). It’s been called “a monstrosity of art.” It has been labeled the ugliest statue, as well as one of the most peaceful places, in Washington, DC. It’s a fountain, but it’s been dry for many decades.

The Temperance Fountain was given to the city by San Francisco dentist and temperance advocate Henry D. Cogswell in 1882. It was meant to be a sort of gift that keeps on giving, with ever-flowing clean drinking water that would offer the public an alternative to alcohol. The fountain also made water available for horses, so in a way it was also like a gas station for its time.

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Real birds hanging out with the Temperance Fountain’s fake bird in 2005

Sculptures of animals (what I’ve seen described as a heron or a stork at the top, and fish or dolphins in the center) complete the fountain’s apparently polarizing aesthetic. Four virtues are emblazoned across the top: Hope, Faith, Charity, and Temperance.

Temperance referred to the movement that promoted abstention from alcohol, eventually leading to Prohibition from 1920 to 1933.

I think of Charity as Cogswell’s well-meaning commission and donation of water fountains to DC as well as several other cities. Whether or not one drinks alcohol, all humans and horses can benefit from free, potable water.

Cogswell must have had Hope and Faith that the waters would flow eternally, but alas, the city stopped providing ice for the water cooling system at some point. (I have not found any source that gives a specific year.) In 1945, a proposed Senate resolution to remove the fountain altogether died in committee.

Today, the fountain stands not as an object with any practical benefit, but instead as a sort of monument to temperance, a quirky DC landmark, and a memorial of what it once was when it bubbled for its human and equine visitors.

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Giving Context to Words


Earlier this month, the United States commemorated the Fourth of July, a holiday marked by traditions such as fireworks, cookouts, parades, and NPR broadcasting a reading of the Declaration of Independence. This year, NPR added something new to the mix: tweeting, in addition to reading, the full text of the document.

With this social media endeavor came some surprising reactions. Several Trump supporters interpreted either the Declaration or particular lines therefrom as an affront to Trump and a justification for calls to defund NPR. When NPR tweeted references to the tyrannical English king, replies included, “Propaganda is that all you know how? Try supporting a man who wants to do something about the Injustice in this country”. Some individuals tweeted suspicions that NPR’s Twitter account had been hacked.

Most amusing was one tweet that, in response to an introductory tweet from NPR that linked to the spoken recording of the Declaration and an image of the centuries-old document, accused NPR of having “never been balanced on your show.” This tweeter was among those glad that NPR might be defunded.

These confused and angry tweets were roundly mocked by the media, and to be sure, it is telling that readers assumed Trump was the person being described by phrases such as: “a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Indeed, it seemed as though those most inclined to proclaim their patriotism were those most offended by the Declaration of Independence.

But at the same time, some confusion is understandable. The tweeting of the Declaration was neither the typical format for NPR tweets nor for reading this foundational text.

A single NPR tweet is normally a single headline, or perhaps a line of clickbait that does not provide all the basic information but that nonetheless reads as a complete thought or sentence. A person reading their own Twitter feed may see 2,000 different users’ tweets pop up as they are fired off, which can make the threads and conversations (not just in the case of NPR tweeting the Declaration) confusing to follow.

Moreover, catching just one or a few phrases from the Declaration of Independence does not convey the full meaning of the document. Reading a tiny fragment of the Declaration like “for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures” raises several basic questions: who is he? Who are they? What measures?

To read a few words from a book is not the same as to read the book. If you read just one sentence, you could end up reading the sentence that the villain utters, the antithesis to the author’s entire point. I am reminded of a piece of Harry Potter fan fiction I sent a friend years ago. What made this particular fanfic unique was that someone, rather than writing all new words, had taken existing lines from the series and rearranged them, so that they told a completely non-canonical story about Harry and Draco.

Some objections to NPR’s tweets were not objections to the Declaration itself, but simply to the format.  If you (being tech-savvier than I) have set your phone to alert you every time NPR tweets something, expecting each ding or beep to represent some piece of breaking news, getting 113 in a row that all quote the Declaration of Independence might annoy you.

Coffee Party director and writer Egberto Willies points out that reading NPR’s tweets of the Declaration as inciting insurrection was not necessarily that far off base. After all, he writes, “the Declaration of Independence is not a peace treaty. It is a document of war.”

So how do we give context to words like the text of the Declaration of Independence? Certainly, NPR was transparent in what it was doing, trying to use multiple media platforms to bring this old writing to modern audiences.

Music can provide context to words by turning them into lyrics, or otherwise using them as inspiration. Soomo’s parody of OneRepublic’s “Apologize” is all about the original Fourth of July, with the singer crooning (with or without a sense of irony?), “We colonized America, we won’t stand for tyranny.”

And of course, museums provide context to documents like the Declaration every day. Here in DC, you can see the original document on display at the National Archives. In 2012, I saw two exhibits at the National Museum of American History that delved into the life and ideas of Thomas Jefferson, helping to shine light on the complicated relationship he had with the ideals he enshrined in his most famous piece of writing.

Independence Hall, Governoer's Council Chamber

Independence Hall, Governoer’s Council Chamber

At Independence Hall and the Independence Visitor Center in Philadelphia, visitors can tour the building where the Declaration was adopted. The building’s Assembly Room, which also witnessed the debating and signing of the Constitution, is considered “one of the most historic rooms in the United States,” according to the National Park Service’s website.

Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, in Charlottesville, Virginia, devotes a section of its website to the Declaration of Independence and offers lesson plans on the subject. With the recent unearthing of Sally Hemings’s living quarters in the historic house museum, the juxtaposition of Jefferson’s life as a slaveholder and his declaration that all men are created equal can be presented to visitors with additional objects and a greater sense of place. For many years the location of a restroom for visitors, Sally Hemings’s room is perhaps, for better or worse, also among the most historic rooms in the United States.

Whether you visited a historic room or read a historic document or watched the fireworks, I hope your Fourth of July was everything you wanted and needed it to be.

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Addicted to Send Me SFMOMA


The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has re-launched Send Me SFMOMA, in which you can request an image of art from the museum’s collection by texting a request to 57251. Sadly, the bot is down right now due to a technical glitch. Here are a few of the works of art I’ve been texted:

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