Whenever a museum recording the history and culture of its subject opens, we are eager to see the stories they tell, in large part because musums are more than the mere display of artifacts. Museums, like books, tell stories, and all narratives are inherently interpretive and represent choices with consequences.
Not everyone will agree with the result, as we saw at Gettysburg when the new visitors center and museum opened several years ago. I understood and sometimes agreed with the critics of the museum, although I think some of those criticisms were overstated. At the same time, I knew that the museum was tasked to do something more than to recount the events of July 1-3, 1863, and November 19, 1863, in isolation, bereft of any context. Yet I also knew that the context would represent interpretive choices that would be open to analysis and criticism.
So it comes as no surprise that some people are not too keen on everything they’ve seen in the Smithsonian Institution’s new museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Of especial note is the claim made in some corners that the museum more than slights the career of current Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, supposedly, one infers, because of Thomas’s conservative political views.
You know what’s going to follow this report: whining about political correctness and the supposed political agenda of supposedly left-wing academics made by right-wing scholars, buffs, and “observers” (advocates) who claim that their adherance to their own political points of view is an expression of their dispassionate objectivity about the American past. We’ve seen that exercise in projection all too often.
Having not yet visited the museum (I haven’t been to DC since it opened, but it is first on my list for my next visit), I can’t testify as to the particulars of the case. Nor do I know how the museum treats other divisions among African-Americans over time, whether it be Frederick Douglass versus Martin Delaney, Booker T. Washington versus W. E. B. DuBois, or Martin Luther King, Jr., versus Malcolm X, all of which have been traditional (and overused as well as sometimes distorted or misunderstood) ways to view aspects of African American history. And that’s just for starters.
That said, one hopes that in recognizing the diversity of the American past through focusing on the African American past, the museum also embraces telling the story of the diversity within the African American past … and present. Part and parcel of that discussion is an exploration of black conservatism as demonstrating that African Americans are far from a unified bloc when it comes to many issues. At the same time, one should not make more of something than is appropriate … we’ve seen that in the discussion of whether Africans Americans served in significant numbers as soldiers in the ranks of the Confederate army. I note that when it comes to that issue, those gallant defenders of historical accuracy often shed their disguises to suggest that, regardless of what Confederates themselves said at the time, such people were soldiers and should be recognized as such … a position that reflects their own presentist attitudes and political agendas. Others just let that issue go unexplored lest they offend their fellow travellers.
Not that we’re about to hear those storied critics of political correctness hold themselves to the same standards they demand of others. No way. Otherwise we might have heard a reaction to this.
So let’s actually visit the museum before we pass judgment. Otherwise we’re little more than a clipping service bound to our personal prejudices.