Sunday, 3 January 2010

Washington, DC – History Museum

Tom was on an NEA panel in December, so I had the chance to go to museums while he worked for three and a half days. I spent a half day at the National Gallery and was surprised that there were so few people there. In fact, all the art museums were very quiet; the week before Christmas it appears that everyone in DC goes home. The following week we were in New York, where the museums were packed with holiday visitors and people home for vacation.

Most entertaining was a visit to the National Museum of American History, where my purpose was to see Keeping History: Plains Indian Ledger Drawings. This tiny display of about 15 drawings by American Indians - who were either imprisoned at Fort Marion in Florida or confined to one of the Indian schools at the end of the 19th century - included computer stations with helpful information about the individual drawings that mostly depicted battles or hunts. While a focus exhibition like this one, especially with good educational material, is often much more informative and pleasurable than a huge encyclopedic examination of a theme, in this case there were so few objects that I did not leave with the feeling of comprehending how these drawings functioned or what they really meant. The exhibition indicated that hundreds of drawings exist, and I wanted to see many more of them. The computer stations provided really helpful interpretation of individual drawings, explaining an animal floating in the sky (the name symbol of the figure below) and identifying various objects depicted. While the hunts and battles were invigorating, the photographs of the Indians who made the drawings while trapped in schools and prisons pointed out the sad circumstances in which the art was produced. Perhaps making ledger drawings gave the prisoners chance to escape mentally and embrace their distinguished history. A version of the exhibition is available online.

I was much more excited when I wandered into the display of the Star Spangled Banner, where crowds of adults and children were busy trying to fill out questionnaires about the exhibition, where I learned that the Francis Scott Key song only became the national anthem in 1931 and where the enormous flag itself (decreased from its original size of 30 by 42 feet by the owners cutting out sections to give as souvenirs) had a profound impact. The information on the maker of the flag, Mary Pickersgill (1776-1857) was enlightening; I had never thought of a person making this particular flag.

In another part of the museum an ordinary Woolworth's lunch counter from Greensboro, South Carolina called up the entire Civil Rights movement. In a history museum an everyday object with no special design qualities can have a powerful emotional impact because of the context in which it played a role. The flag is really big, but identifying it as the source of the national anthem adds enormously to its power. The lunch counter, symbolizing more recent history, reverberates in ways both painful and heroic.

Finally, I visited Julia Child's kitchen, where, with several other people my age, I watched videos of her making crepes Suzettes and baked Alaska and wondered how obsessive she must have been to have outlines on her peg board to be sure her copper pots would always be returned to their proper places. It was helpful to see the actual person after having had her transformed into Meryl Streep by the movie Julie and Julia.

No comments:

Post a Comment