Philosopher Susan Neiman alludes to a striking gap in the considerable array of museums on the National Mall in Washington D.C. The U.S. has long been an imperial power, and as such has accumulated a considerable record of crimes that few nations can match. Yet that record is invisible. As the empire remains, the establishment has not been forced to acknowledge the ugly past. When will the museum of imperial crimes be erected?
To take just one instance of what such a project might look like, as I have noted previously, an obvious parallel to the Vietnam War Memorial would be a wall for the Vietnamese dead. “The Vietnam Civilians and Veterans Memorial of Vietnamese would, if the height of the wall, layout, and spacing of names is held constant with the existing Wall, be not 493 feet in length but 26,288 feet long. That comes to just shy of five miles. At that length the new wall would extend from the site of the current memorial out of the National Mall, past Capitol Hill, and cross the Anacostia River.”
“In 1999 the German parliament voted, after years of public debate, to build the official Holocaust memorial in the most prominent piece of empty space in Berlin. I prefer a more unsettling monument to the past — the thousands of Stolperstein or ‘Stumbling Stones’ that the German artist Gunter Demnig has hammered into sidewalks in front of buildings where Jews lived before the war, listing their names, and birth and deportation dates. As some opponents predicted, the uses to which the Holocaust Monument has been put are anything but appropriate. But given that the centre of Berlin has been rebuilt with bombast, a bombastic Holocaust memorial, sticking out like a stylised sore thumb amid the triumphalist architecture of the Brandenburg Gate and its surrounding embassies and institutions seems just about right.
By comparison: can you imagine a monument to the genocide of Native Americans or the Middle Passage at the heart of the Washington Mall? Suppose you could walk down the street and step on a reminder that this building was constructed with slave labour, or that the site was the home of a Native American tribe before it was ethnically cleansed? What we have, instead, are national museums of Native American and African American culture, the latter scheduled to open in 2015. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian boasts exhibits showing superbly crafted Pueblo dolls, the influence of the horse in Native American culture, and Native American athletes who made it to the Olympics. The website of the Smithsonian’s anticipated National Museum of African American History and Culture does show a shackle that was presumably used on a slave ship, but it is far more interested in collecting hats worn by Pullman porters or pews from the African Methodist Episcopal church. A fashion collection is in the making, as well as a collection of artefacts belonging to the African American abolitionist Harriet Tubman; 39 objects, including her lace shawl and her prayer book, are already available.
Don’t get me wrong: it is deeply important to learn about, and validate, cultures that have been persecuted and oppressed. Without such learning, we are in danger of viewing members of such cultures as permanent victims — objects instead of subjects of history. The Jewish Museum Berlin is explicit about not reducing German Jewish history to the Holocaust. One section of the museum is devoted to it, but the rest of the permanent collection features things such as a portrait of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, filmed interviews with Hannah Arendt, a Jewish Christmas tree, and a giant moveable head of garlic. (Don’t ask.) The exhibit is awful, but presumably useful for those visitors whose only association with the word ‘Jew’ is a mass of gaunt prisoners in striped uniforms. In the same way, some Americans, no doubt, still need to see more than savage Hollywood Indians or caricatured Stepin Fetchit black people in order to get a more accurate picture of the cultures many of our ancestors tried to destroy. But more importantly, America’s museums of Native American and African American history embody a quintessentially American quality: we have always been inclined to look to the future instead of the past, and our museums follow suit. It’s impossible to compare what’s on display in our national showcase with what you can find in Germany without feeling that America’s national history retains its whitewash — and that a sane and sound future requires a more direct confrontation with our past.”