A Stroll Through American History: Washington Mall and the Smithsonian Museum of American History (Part I)

It’s hard to describe the experience of walking around the mall. There’s a feeling that it’s all been done before, and any awe you express might be taken as contrived. I’m also well aware that a British audience is automatically somewhat cynical, so any earnestness could lead to a reaction of embarrassment. Then of course, there’s the question of how one, as a non-American, is allowed to feel in the face of all this serious patriotism. And of course, as with holiday snaps, there’s always the fear that this is all terribly boring.

However, I’m going to try, and if you’ve read this far, maybe you’re willing to read a little further…

So on our first proper day in the US we walked around the west side of the mall, where most of the monuments and memorials are, and the tidal basin. But the mall is huge, so we had to wait for a dry weekend to complete the east side – where the Smithsonian and the government buildings are sited. As we began our walk in the direction of the Vietnam and Korean memorials I was somewhat anxious that I wouldn’t feel the requisite amount of awed respect simply because of my feeling that I’ve seen these memorials so many times before in films, documentaries and even cartoons. But, though they weren’t exactly new to me, they were pretty moving. The enormity of events that cause such a number of deaths can really be felt when the monuments tower over you, as the lists of names gradually do in the Vietnam memorial. It’s a similar impression as is achieved by the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, and just as effective. The Korean memorial is difficult to capture in pictures, mainly because I found most of its emotional power came from the etched faces of personnel on the black walls behind the statues of soldiers. There is also a sculpture memorialising the women who served in Vietnam and, though sentimental – it rather idealises women as symbols of hope, faith and charity – I found it quite striking nonetheless.

Then of course, we came to the monuments to presidents. We had already seen the Washington Monument – it’s difficult to miss that obelisk, especially from the hill that we’re staying on. In a way it’s a bit of an obvious monument, a lot of height, not a lot of soul, and in danger of appearing compensatory for something, but I’ve grown to be rather fond of the way it’s always there, popping up now and then on the skyline. We had also seen the memorial to the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, many of whom of course became presidents. This is a relatively new one I think, and situated on a duck island in Constitution Gardens. But the main monuments to see of course, are those to Lincoln and Jefferson.  

As we walked up the steep flights of marble steps to the Lincoln monument, I couldn’t help but feel that it was all terribly Roman. Far more than the ruins of the Mediterranean, these structures truly let you feel what it might have been like to live among a Roman cityscape. The Lincoln monument even calls itself a ‘Temple’, which must give rise to the question: what is it a temple to? Because obviously it’s secular – the Jefferson monument features writings and speeches of his that stress the separation of church and state in the new nation he was helping to build. And the Gettysburg Address, stressing the sacrifice of men for their human cause, is one of the main focuses of the Lincoln Monument (we had hoped to find some American family forcing their children to recite it, but were disappointed). So they’re temples to the ideals of America, though of course the Lincoln monument can’t help but remind us of how disputed these could be, with the text of Lincoln’s second inaugural speech on the wall opposite the Address. Because the civil war was raging during the election, Lincoln was re-elected only by the votes of the North, and his speech balances a rejection of triumphalism (they were winning) with a clear message of the evils of slavery. We particularly liked:

“It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

So we stood, in impressed silence in both the presidential temples to read all the selected words of Lincoln and Jefferson engraved there. It seemed to us that others were less respectfully thoughtful as they went round their national treasures – the German for monument is Denkmal, which literally translates to ‘think for once’ or at this moment, and I always think this is the best way to experience monuments – but on the other hand, who are we to judge, especially as these monuments are not really ours: the American youths messing about in them are free to enjoy them however they want. After all, this is America.

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Less physically impressive, but thoroughly unexpected, was the FDR memorial. Thanks to our GCSE syllabus we knew all about the New Deal and the almost socialist values implied in the aim of full employment. However, I didn’t expect such values to be so celebrated in such a capitalist country. The memorial is like an outdoor museum: you wander through sculpted tableaux of his four terms, reading excerpts from his speeches inscribed on rocks above you, and in the summer you are presumably surrounded by the babbling of fountains, but these were dry when we visited. Fittingly for the only president with a physical disability, the place is completely accessible to wheelchairs and there are displays using braille for blind people.

The final monument to mention is the newest – the memorial to Martin Luther King. There has been some controversy over the inscription on the monument, which was a badly paraphrased quotation from one of King’s speeches. This has now, as far as we could see, been removed. It’s been placed in a lovely spot, on the tidal basin, looking across to the beautiful Jefferson monument. We wondered if this was some sort of comment on Jefferson being an owner of slaves… When you get to the Jefferson monument you can look over at Lincoln’s and see that King’s is in a direct line with it – the slave owner, the slave liberator and the black-rights activist.

So that’s the western side of the mall. We took a break at that point, deciding to come back another day to explore the other side and Capitol Hill.

To be continued… 

Meanwhile, when trying to think of films in which these monuments featured we came up with: Mr Smith Goes to Hollywood, Team America and Legally Blonde 2. Any others?

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