Breaking Glass

Whose Museum? What Nation?

Nations define themselves by what they choose to remember.  The growing complexity of the United States is suggested by the ever-expanding volume of her historical memories, the range of groups and events that are commemorated, often in the name of multiculturalism.  Just look at the changing landscape of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., with the stunning new National Museum of the American Indian.  To secure a place in memory is also to stake a claim for power and resources in the modern world.

Actually, it is possible to exaggerate the damage done by multiculturalism.  Anyone visiting the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will be deeply disappointed if they hope to be outraged by vapid or obsessive displays harping on “women and minorities” in every other caption.  Generally, the museum is a fine and thoughtful display.  So good is it, in fact, that it is all the more amazing when we realize what is being omitted.  Even the most sensible of American historians and museum-keepers still miss a crucially large portion of the nation’s history, arguably its central vision.  And once we understand that, we can appreciate most of our current rows over culture wars, Red and Blue America, and all the rest.

A national museum has to serve a dual function—to offer the canonical themes of American history but also to reflect changing historical...

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