Can the United States survive in an age of hyphens? Consider the innocuous comments of a traveler as recently reported in the New York Times:
“I enjoy business travel when it gives me the opportunity to visit with other cultures. Those cultures don’t have to be found in foreign lands. In the United States, there are so many different and wonderful cultural experiences you can have just traveling between Washington, Michigan and Kentucky, for example.”
Seems perfectly reasonable, doesn’t it? What could be more harmless than immersing oneself in the different cultures that comprise the American stew? Now let’s put it in historical perspective: how does this person know besides not having to show his passport, that he was in the United States and that these wonderful cultural experiences are all part of a single culture called America? What connect all these places as one country?
This topic was raised by Frank Bruni in his op-ed piece “The Water Cooler Runs Dry.” Most of the column addressed his recognition that as an almost 50-year old teaching teenagers at a college that they didn’t speak the same language. They all spoke English but the teacher spoke the language based on the metaphors of the time of his upbringing while the students spoke a language from decades later using references equally strange to him. This was the precise theme of the classic Star Trek Next Generation episode “Darmok,” which brilliantly used the ancient Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic to forge a connection between cultures that shared concerns but used different metaphors and vocabulary to express them and therefore couldn’t understand each other. On a more academic level, David Lowenthal in The Past Is a Foreign Country addressed the same concern. The challenge facing us today is what happens when the disconnect occurs within a single country. Can a house metaphorically divided long endure?
Bruni itemized the technological changes which have rendered Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s classic admonition false. Moynihan naively asserted we were all entitled to our own opinions but not to our own facts. In the internet age of infinite websites and seemingly innumerable cable stations, we do all have our own news, facts, and history and are free to ignore or mock those who turn to other and therefore inferior sources of information. There are no Walter Cronkites, Ed Sullivans, or weekly shows with 25-50 million viewers then which would be 40-70 million today. Our ability to create our own cocoon led Bruni to ask “Has the personal niche supplanted the public square?” Ironically, he called this phenomena “Balkanization.” Even though we are now beginning to ignore the centennial of “the war to end all wars” which was the ultimate example of Balkanization gone awry, one wonders how many of his students would understand the reference.
Bruni bemoaned the lack of connective tissue which creates a unified whole in what Daniel Rogers, Princeton, called “the age of fracture.” This concern concludes the op-ed piece written by Jennifer Finney Boylan, Colby College, “A Common Core for All of Us.”:
“Maybe what we need is a common core for families, in which mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, all read the same book, and sit down at the table to talk about it. Having a language in common doesn’t mean that we have to agree with one other. It simply means that we — as a family, a college or a country — can engage in meaningful conversation about the life of the kind.”
One may begin to glimpse here the essential role municipal historical societies and museums have for the well-being of the country.
The challenge to the museum community and America to speak this common metaphorical core was raised in a perceptive and disturbing article by Edward Rothstein, “New Insights May Skew the Big Picture.” His opening line “Museums are born to wrestle with history” calls to mind one of the great biblical images, that of Jacob wrestling with the Lord aka the God in History before being named “Israel,” as he is born again metaphorically-speaking. For a museum, Rothstein refers to the artifacts it collects and gathers to shape a narrative, evoke a memory, and spur a reaction. In other words, they are challenged to excite the mind so we may elevate ourselves from the routine to grasp and understand the legacy which has been bequeathed to us. It is our turn now to continue the story by passing the torch to the next generation or otherwise simply to create the factoids the next generation will find dull and boring depending on how you look at it.
Rothstein harkens back to what he deems the typical American historical society founded in the 19th century. He might have made note of the American Centennial then just as the Bicentennial spurred historical interest in the 1970s. He characterizes these organizations as commemorative of a community’s origin. It was a form of a tribute to one’s own ancestors, to the founding of the community in which one now lived. Of course, time does not stand still; our “place” moves through time so our sense of place needs to be four-dimensional. This challenges the historical societies to add layers to the constantly unfolding story and to reassess the way in which older stories were told. Rothstein praises historical societies who grow with the times citing the Ohio Historical Society. The alternative is to remain frozen in time as if history came to an end when the founders or ancestors died.
Unfortunately, the changes which occurred weren’t necessarily so beneficial. Rothstein contrasts two types of historical societies
1. The Traditional – “almost mythological institutions, claiming to display the origins and themes of a society, shaping understanding with a coherent interpretation of the past;
2. The Politically Correct – “the singular replaced by the plural, coherence displaced by multiplicity.”
So just as “curiosity cabinets” defined the 18th-century approach (see William Johnson in the Mohawk Valley), the “Identity Museum” defines the 21st century so far.
Rothstein is brutal is his condemnation of museums which have gone astray as he sees it.
“A potentially important exhibition about the history of slavery and abolition in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Historical Society is marred by its simplification of information, a lack of detail and language that is meant to link 19th-century abolitionists to contemporary self-styled activists.”
Do you know of any museums that would compromise history to reach out to the younger-generation today that isn’t interested in the past? Museums need new patrons and social causes may be a way to attract them (see David Gelles, “Wooing the New Patrons”). On the other hand, perhaps this is not a compromise with the past, but a more enlightened and truer telling of it. Rothstein lauds the New-York Historical Society for its extraordinary insightful approach to history which raises questions and invites curiosity apparently without becoming a sermon on the politically correct.
The stakes are high. Rothstein writes of another exhibition:
“A major permanent exhibition, “Records of Rights,” at the National Archives in Washington chooses to introduce visitors to the nation’s founding documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights — by focusing on American failures to guarantee those rights, thus skewing the historical record.”
So at the same time as China ruthlessly represses all memory of Tiananmen Square with its Statue of Liberty symbol, our government showcases American failures. Even the Founding Fathers called America an “experiment” and would have recognized the term “work-in-progress.” Madison, after all, did include an amendment permitting change to the Constitution which was used immediately. Speaking of Madison, Tom Friedman reports that at the American University of Iraq in the semi-independent province of Kurdistan, there is an open college where Madison and Jefferson are devoured by eager students seeking to create a viable free society amidst the surrounding sectarian chaos. Apparently a Founding Father is without honor is his own capitol if you catch my metaphor.
Rothstein unleashes his most vigorous ire at the most egregious example of an Identity Museum gone awry: the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington (not New York). He considers that museum a morality play of the worst kind. One wonders if the proposed National Women’s History Museum will follow in this pattern. It’s as if museums are becoming sermons to indoctrinate us to the true path.
So what can be done?
On July 7, 2011, and March 19, 2013, Representative James P. Moran (Virginia) introduced legislation to create the National Museum of the American People, sometimes called the “Melting-Pot Museum.” He was responding to the trend towards Identity Museums on the Mall with a proposal for a museum to show that all the peoples of America contributed to America’s story. The idea originated with Sam Eskenazi, former Director of Public Information for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, who created the Coalition for the National Museum of the American People. His original sponsor for the legislation in 2008 was Maurice Hinchey, formerly of the Hudson Valley, now retired.
Moran called National Museum of the American People an antidote to the current trend in museums. By coincidence, Bill Hosley and Julia Shipley, two speakers at the “Museum as Community Hubs” conference of the Connecticut League of History Organizations, June 2, 2014, in separate sessions each used the same term, “antidote” in reference to the mission of the local historical society and museum. It’s not rocket science.
As Americans, don’t we have the right to take pride in the achievements and contributions to the country of any individual regardless of their hyphen? If America is to be a country based on We the People and not the hyphen, then we need to tell that story. If people are to identify with the place where they live and not only the hyphen with which they were born, then our historical societies and museums need to rise to the occasion and tell the stories of the all the peoples of the community.
It would be a fitting tribute to Maurice Hinchey if New York, the center for immigration to America, took the lead in supporting local history museums and historical societies chartered but not funded by the NYS Education Department to tell the story in their communities of all the American people, by all the American people, and for all the American people so that story shall not perish.
Illustration: The Nine Nations of North America, according to Joel Garreau (courtesy random notes: geographer-at-large).