A rainy Saturday was perfect for exploring the Smithsonian Museum of American History (after brunch of course). Like most things in America, it’s pretty huge. We focused on the exhibits on the top floor (The Price of Freedom) which took us on a tour through the war of independence, the 1812 war, the civil war, the wars of expansion, and the Spanish-American war. The exhibit then continues through the world wars, the cold war, Korea and Vietnam right into the present – but we got tired, so will go back to do these another time. What we saw in the first part of the exhibit had certainly put what we’d seen on the mall into context for us.
One thing that struck me as we went around, was just how known American history is: it’s so well documented, in terms of writings and artefacts. I suppose this is due in part to the fact that if you’re conscious of the fact that you’re creating what you want to be an historic nation and system, you’ll be careful to preserve the records of how it was forged. Also, at the time their history was unfolding, the concept of a museum already existed, and thanks to James Smithson’s donation to a country that he had never visited, America soon had the Smithsonian institution to which presidents, those who knew presidents, and even common citizens, could begin sending relics. The Smithsonian visitor centre has an exhibition of such objects at the moment (you can see some online at their site: Souvenir Nation), including shavings of the final railroad tie (or sleeper) to complete the transcontinental railway, locks of the presidents’ hair, and a suffragette pin in the shape of a jailhouse door. In the Museum of American History itself the importance of relics to the early Americans was made clear to us as we stood in front of the original star spangled banner – the one that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore following a successful battle over the British in the 1812 war and inspired the poem which became the national anthem. Bits of this flag are missing as they were cut off in the nineteenth century as patriotic keepsakes – and I don’t mean just the edges, someone even gave away one of the stars.
There were a few things I hadn’t realised about American history that I learned from the Smithsonian:
1. The 1812 war. I mean, I think I had a vague inkling that there had been a second war between Britain and America but, embarrassingly, this was mostly news to me. The war was entirely separate from the war of independence, lasted 32 months, and was pretty much a draw, with neither Britain nor America losing territory. It was pretty bad for the Indians though – it was in this war that Andrew Jackson destroyed the military power of the Creek nation at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. It was also in this war that the British burnt down the White House. I’d already heard the story of how the first lady, Dolly Madison, had set the table ready for dinner and how the British soldiers sat down and ate before torching the place, but I hadn’t heard that Dolly also saved many of the White House treasures from the fire.
2. Lincoln was assassinated just a month after his second inauguration.
3. I had thought that America’s involvement with the Philippines stemmed from WWII, but in fact it was one of the theatres of the American-Spanish war of 1898. It also represented America’s desire to build its own overseas empire.
4. After winning the war of independence, George Washington returned to private life on his farm, until America decided it needed a president and called him back. This was pretty impressive to the world back then, and still is in some places; it made us think of the Ibrahim prize that encourages and supports African leaders to step down and move onto other things when their allotted term comes to an end…
Overall I came away feeling a bit more educated, and slightly more able to reflect on the difficult questions posed by America’s history. There’s the question of the nature of the union – how different states are philosophically, especially in their support of states’ rights or their belief in the importance of the nation. There’s the question of slavery – how different was it in fact from the wage slavery of capitalism, and was the war really just about this issue? And then of course, there’s the Native Americans. Pulled into every one of the conflicts, losing land and power as they went, having treaty after treaty revoked. And of course, we’ve barely scratched the surface. Part of one exhibition down, two and a half floors, sixteen Smithsonians to go!