[Editor’s Note: Over the course of 2022 and 2023, New American History Executive Director Ed Ayers is visiting places where significant history happened, and exploring what has happened to that history since. He is focusing on the decades between 1800 and 1860, filing dispatches about the stories being told at sites both famous and forgotten. This is the fifth installment in the series.]
Abby and I left Bertha parked in the driveway while we ventured off to Washington, Baltimore, and Maryland’s Eastern Shore in our car. This short but intense leg of our journey would not play to Bertha’s strengths, for the Washington Beltway can sometimes become an endless loop of time and space, the interstate alternately a speedway and parking lot, and the low ceilings of parking garages a threat. We thought she might be happier sitting this one out.
We missed her sometimes. Our modern DC hotel had a groovy lobby, and our room required no additional hoses or floor leveling, but it was not large enough for a chair, much less a microwave or dining table. We were relieved to find that Bertha still seemed appealing after our dalliance with other forms of lodging.
We came to DC to see how our nation’s great museums interpreted the decades between 1800 and 1860. We had a pleasant opportunity to initiate the trip: VIP passes to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). That museum has been a heartening success story since its opening, the result of decades of devotion and expertise. It has met with gratitude, engagement, and enormous crowds.
The museum, as always, was booked solid for weeks out, but we had a reason to come in the side door. Months earlier, I had traveled to a studio in Arlington, Virginia, to film segments for an exhibit on Reconstruction for the NMAAHC. It involved sitting in a large dark room and answering hard questions about Reconstruction. I hadn’t heard anything since and thought my contributions might be on the cutting-room floor, but a friend reported that she had heard my voice during a visit to the museum, looked around a corner, and saw me on a video screen in an exhibit with Lonnie Bunch, the head of the Smithsonian, and Edna Medford, a historian at Howard University. I asked friends at the museum if Abby and I might be able to get a glimpse of the display, and they kindly facilitated a visit.
The video played in a circular space in a large exhibit on emancipation and freedom. Our brief answers to key questions (What was Reconstruction? Why don’t most people know much about Reconstruction? Why does Reconstruction matter today?) reminded visitors what was at stake in the years following the Civil War.
A mother and her adult daughter happened to enter the space while we were there and I stood by the screen, looking thoughtful, in hopes they would recognize me from the image a couple of feet away. They didn’t, until I shamelessly interrupted their experience to ask if they noticed anything. They responded in a good-natured way, laughing and expressing polite astonishment. Abby suggested we stay to see if anyone actually noticed me unprompted, but we needed to move along.
In other galleries, the museum’s portrayal of slavery is all that one could hope for, weaving rare artifacts into compelling narratives. Nat Turner’s Bible radiates power that challenges the shackles and chains on display elsewhere. A cotton sack carried by a young enslaved woman sold away from her family, embroidered with a message from her granddaughter in 1921, makes the sort of humane connections that people recall forever. The hundreds of thousands of people who travel to the NMAAHC each year are shown the American past in a potent, revealing, and necessary light.
Across the street, through throngs of excited school groups dressed in matching T-shirts and exuberant hats, stands the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. In contrast to the bold and ornate African American museum, the low concrete building is uninspiring, reflecting its origins in the early-1960s to memorialize “the importance of freedom and democracy during the Cold War.” The exhibits in the museum have been continually updated and revised in the decades since, of course, but the mission of national celebration endures.
The Star-Spangled Banner occupies center stage. Old Glory lies in a kind of altar space, gently illuminated in a dark gallery. The veneration helps atone for the rough handling of the flag for generations after 1814, when it hung outside the building and surrendered pieces for souvenirs.
On either side of the flag exhibit stretch wings of permanent and changing exhibits. Some are classic throwbacks, such as the gowns of the First Ladies and the Ruby Red Slippers from the Wizard of Oz. Others are contemporary, such as an exhibit on the changing complexities of American girlhood.
At the transportation gallery, Abby and I were delighted and surprised to see featured on a video screen two RV movies we had recently discovered: The Long, Long Trailer, a color film from 1952 featuring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz at the height of their fame, pulling what is indeed a very long trailer across the country, and Lost in America, a 1985 film by Albert Brooks that featured a large Winnebago driven with suspicious ease and instant expertise.
The themes of these films, like those of the unfortunate RV, a derivative film with a glum Robin Williams at the wheel, replay familiar scenes of novices carrying unrealistic dreams across the American landscape. A nearby exhibit of a trailer from the 1930s, with a mother and daughter cooking while the father either consults a map (my interpretation) or goofs off (Abby’s interpretation), shows continuities still evident in RV campgrounds today.
As we methodically navigated through the enormous galleries of the museum it became clear that there was no one place to see the era we had come to see, though intriguing pieces appeared throughout. An exhibit of a New England house traced its inhabitants from the building’s construction in the 18th century through the 20th century, including an impressively documented white family devoted to abolitionism in the 1840s. John Bull, a British locomotive used on one of the first American railroads, stood at the entrance to the transportation exhibit, and a model of a riverboat in Cincinnati and an exhibit on the Erie Canal illustrated migration into the Mississippi River valley. Placid excerpts from the video game of Walden jostled among raucous clips from Red Dead Redemption 2 and Assassin’s Creed in an exhibit about history in video games, but otherwise the great authors of the era known as the American Renaissance made no appearance.
The Mexican War stood as one of several “wars of expansion” in the 19th century, and an exhibit titled “How Did We Become Us?” offered a giant digital atlas tracing the paths of westward migration. The paraphernalia of the famous “log cabin and hard cider campaign” of 1840 appeared among the impressive collections on American democracy.
Despite these efforts to enliven the story, though, the first six decades of the 19th century seemed colorless and bland, a time of dark wood and dull steel, of images with faded colors and crude typography. The era embodied no identity of its own but was subsumed into stories that reached across longer periods. That makes sense. Anyone who represents the past must somehow combine time, place, and theme. A museum presents particular opportunities and limitations. An exhibit requires an artifact or image, some kind of context to give meaning, and connections to other exhibits to provide coherence. And the National Museum of American History must somehow tell the story of the entire nation across its entire history, even if it means that any particular era or topic fades in significance.
The impossibility of including everything is one reason that the Smithsonian’s newer museums are more satisfying. This is true not only of the NMAAHC, but also of the Museum of the American Indian, which we visited next. Its fluid stone architecture offers a welcome change from the neoclassical orthodoxy of Washington’s official buildings. And its portrayal of Native dispossession explains the Trail of Tears powerfully and directly, showing that the federal government’s actions under Andrew Jackson were, simultaneously, “fantastically expensive,” “nearly endless,” “wildly successful,” and an “epic failure.” Each point is dramatically illustrated by graphics and numbers: the dispossession cost $100,000,000; unfolded under nine presidents; created a new bureaucracy, and opened the way for a cotton boom that strengthened the hands of slaveholders. A large screen projects part of Jackson’s message to Congress in 1830 calling for Indian removal, and then unpacks the meaning behind each word. Another exhibit explains how the Trail of Tears came to have that name around the turn of the 20th century, and celebrates the Native female poets who created the evocative phrase.
The focus on how we know what we know about the past appears even more powerfully in another exhibit at the Museum of the American Indian, titled simply “Americans.” In a giant array of colorful and illuminated images in a darkened room, the exhibit shows the many ways that images and names of American Indians have been used to sell every imaginable product over centuries, from tobacco to cars to sports teams to anti-litter campaigns.
One artifact gave me a start: a white sash with an embroidered red arrow. One just like it was a prized possession of my boyhood, for it symbolized that I had been inducted into the Boy Scouts Order of the Arrow. The induction began in a ceremony around a giant bonfire at Camp Tom Howard, the fire lit by a flaming arrow sent across the lake on an invisible wire at night. An older boy dressed as an Indian walked among us. Stopping behind me, he pounded my shoulder three times to signify that I had been selected to join the order.
As a boy small for my age, it meant a great deal that I won this acknowledgment. The connection it implied with the Indians who had once lived throughout our region made me feel wiser and more manly. A video of a white man about my age in another part of the gallery explained the habitual appropriation of Native symbols by my generation of Scouts without a second thought about Native people themselves.
The targeted visits to three large museums in a day left us exhausted, but we had a nicer meal than those available in campgrounds, and appreciated water hotter and more consistent than we had come to expect in Bertha. It was good that we rested up, for we weren’t quite done with our DC museum blitz yet.
The next day, we visited the National Gallery of Art, where I recognized, illuminated at the end of a sculpture hall, the most popular American object of art in the era we were exploring: Hiram Powers’ The Greek Slave.
Powers was a self-trained sculptor from Cincinnati who began by sculpting busts in plaster, first of people at home and then of officeholders in Washington. Prospering and yet aware that he had more to learn, Powers took his family to Italy. There, he saw that the female form embodied the highest accomplishment of sculpture. He began with a well-received representation of Eve, and then determined to depict a white Christian woman stolen into slavery by the Turks.
In a feat that still seems strange to me, Powers convinced clergymen and other powerful gatekeepers to allow the nude figure to be displayed to vast audiences across the country. She was dressed, Powers and his defenders pronounced, in virtue and Christian purity, though the clear implication was that she would be sexually violated by her heathen purchasers.
A cross had been stripped from her neck and she bore chains on her wrists. In the National Gallery, the gleaming white figure was bathed in gentle light, her eyes averted from those who looked upon her. Though I had seen countless images of The Greek Slave, the actual object exerted an aura of sadness and faith I had not previously felt.
Abolitionists pointed out that the United States did not need to import images of enslaved women in chains, exposed to the gaze of salacious men, for such scenes could be seen across the American South every day. When The Greek Slave was displayed as the centerpiece of the American exhibit at London’s Crystal Palace in 1851, a Black American abolitionist placed a British cartoon of The Virginia Slave, similarly unclothed and vulnerable, beside Powers’ work, calling attention to American hypocrisy.
At the National Portrait Gallery, the obscurity of the presidents after Jackson — Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan — was even more obvious when arrayed between the Founders and Lincoln. Visitors passed their paintings without a glance, on the way to the more familiar and interesting figures of the 20th and 21st centuries. Abby took a picture of me posing in the same manner as John Tyler. Catching ourselves in this distinctly unprofessional activity, we sensed that we had traversed enough museum hallways for the time being.
The next morning, we made the short drive to Baltimore and Fort McHenry. There, we joined school groups, younger than usual, pouring out of yellow buses. We saved the cool, dark exhibit hall as a reward and headed into the unshaded fort. We looked o’er the ramparts and inspected the cannons and bombproof shelters before venturing into the barracks. There, we confronted a life-sized bronze figure of Major George Armistead, leaning over a table, who briefed us on his plans for the looming invasion and shared some of his personal thoughts about his wife, due with a child at any time. It was a simple exhibit that proved surprisingly evocative.
Retreating into the cool of the air-conditioned main building, we appreciated the helpful maps and other displays that explained the military action around the fort and the background to Francis Scott Key and the Star-Spangled Banner. The film and digital displays did not emphasize the Black people who allied with the British to seize their freedom, though that important information did get a mention on the back of the map of the war in the Chesapeake. We were surprised when the screen rose at the end of the film to reveal the American flag waving over the same fort it had waved in 1814. We stood with others in a memorable moment.
Our next Baltimore destination was the B&O Railroad Museum. It depicted a story that was more closely connected in time to Fort McHenry than it might appear. Only 14 years after the British bombardment of Fort McHenry, Baltimore laid the cornerstone for the first railroad in the United States, at a ceremony hosted by the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. The adoption of the new technology was a major undertaking for the city, a sign of leaders’ determination not to be left behind by New York, in particular, after the completion of the Erie Canal a few years before. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad ended up constructing impressive arched stone bridges that still stand today.
The museum is arrayed around a huge roundhouse filled with locomotives, passenger cars, coal cars, and other railroad machinery. The railroading buffs at the museum were in heaven, as were the children who ran among the giant machines.
My own interest lay, typically, in one of the less colorful sections of the museum, among the oldest machines on display: a pitch black boiler standing upright on a heavy wooden platform, called, for obvious reasons, the “Teakettle.”(A helpful sign told us that its inventor, Peter Cooper, also developed the techniques behind the treat known today as Jell-o.) The changes between that first experimental locomotive and the gleaming American-style machines of the 1850s testify to the astonishing progress made in just two decades, and of the leading role played by the new United States in that progress.
Leaving Baltimore, we traveled to Maryland’s Eastern Shore to see the site of Harriet Tubman’s enslavement, escape, and exploits. The peaceful landscape belied the suffering that had taken place there during centuries of slavery. We drove to the new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Cambridge, a National Park Service operation that presented Tubman’s astonishing story with powerful exhibits, films, and displays. Windows next to wall panels reminded us that we were looking at the same landscape Tubman navigated with bravery and skill. A nature trail nearby took us into the surrounding wetlands, and markers throughout the area alerted us to places where Tubman had rendezvoused with the dozens of men, women, and children she led to freedom in Wilmington, Philadelphia, New York, and Canada.
Had we been with Bertha, we would have love to find a campground on the Eastern Shore to spend the night. Instead, we decided to drive home that evening, hoping to bypass rush-hour traffic. Still, we reached home later than we had hoped. The next morning, in the dawn’s early light, we could see Bertha waiting for the next journey, when it would once again be her turn.