Last week I went to DC for the ASAP Awards. Along the way, I went on some adventures with Miranda and Lizz. And these were better than normal adventures – these were MUSEUM adventures. With a gnome!
A few highlights/big picture thoughts.
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
Miranda and I stopped by here to check out their forensic anthropology exhibit. Basically, they showed all kinds of old bones and what types of stuff they can tell us about the American colonial period that we couldn’t get from the regular written record.
As the exhibit notes, using skeletons and other such remains can provide insight into marginalized groups. The exhibit put together a particular section on the Africans in the early colonies.
It was really refreshing to see the exhibit not only acknowledge that flaws exist in the traditional method of studying colonial American, but also engage in a conversation about why those methodologies are flawed. The exhibit posited in a rather macabre way that bodies could give voices to those whom history previously left voiceless.
In addition to discussing African Americans, the exhibit also discussed how forensic anthropology could provide a look into the less savory bits of American colonial history – such as the assertion that early and starving colonists may have resorted to cannibalism. (I don’t recall which settlement it was, but the exhibit claimed definite evidence of at least one murder and munching)
The other part that stood out to me also had to do with a marginalized group: indentured servants, who provided the free labor before colonists decided African slaves were preferable. If you see in the back of the picture I loaded above, there’s a statue of a boy carrying a large load. Here’s a bigger version of it:
Yeah, turns out that’s a reconstruction of a body they found buried in a basement in one of the early colonies. According to the records, the family who lived there came over with indentured servants, at least one of whom disappeared. And judging from the way the body was buried – in a grave in a basement apparently dug with a broken pot – the family didn’t care too much for him.
Basically my first thought was, damn, Dean and Sam are going to have some serious ganking to do.
American History Museum
After the Natural History Museum, we went to the American History Museum with their brand new exhibit Food: Transforming the American Table. The exhibit looked at the changes to American habits between 1950 and 2000 with the rise of industrial production and mass consumption. It also featured Julia Child’s kitchen!
I was excited to see bits of California throughout the exhibit. There was an extensive display on the California wine industry, and mention of the school lunch program started by the Black Pantheres. There was an homage paid to the Bay Area origins of the slow food movement, complete with the parodic “Berkeley Food Pyramid” of veggies, wine and coffee.
The big thing that disappointed me, however, was how little they talked about gender and the changing of the American menu. The exhibit featured numerous consumer products (such as early microwaves) and discussed how mega-markets like Costco changed the face of grocery shopping. It even featured cookbooks with processed foods! It did not, however, talk about how any of these products influenced or were influenced by changing notions of women and gender roles.
(By the way it’s late so my analysis of this particular museum won’t be nearly as nuanced and complex as it really ought to be. I have lots of thinks and feels about places like this but I don’t have the bandwidth at the moment to really delve into them, so this is mostly a cursory glance over what I did see and experience)
I’ve never been to any of those DAR or Daughters of the Pioneers or anything sorts of things, so I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Our tour guide was very sweet and charming, and she was delighted to find out that Lizz was pursuing a graduate degree in museum studies. She seemed less delighted to find out I wrote my senior thesis on home economics; later, Lizz said she suspected the guide thought I actually did home economics and wrote a thesis about it, rather than the history of it. Props to Katie for poor communication of my interests.
DAR headquarters has historical rooms fashioned by DAR chapters from individual states. These were not necessarily historical replicas of any particular place, and it was pretty fascinating to look at what different chapters chose to represent themselves. The New Jersey room, for example, featured a table made out of a sunken ship, and Tennessee included several pieces of White House furniture. (And it was pink!) We definitely made a point to stop by the California room, which, our guide explained, was designed to highlight the different cultures that made up California, from the Chinese-inspired table in the corner to various Spanish influences.
After the tour, we went to the Ideal Home exhibit, which unfortunately wasn’t quite what I expected. It mainly showcased all kinds of objects from the first half of the 20th century, from China plates to an original television. It was very informative in talking about how changes in technology may have affected homemaking, but it didn’t quite provide the amount of social context I would’ve liked.
At the same time, it did provide some interesting glimpses into the past. Our guide suggested we look at the old vacuum – that definitely made me glad I live in this century!
I wish going into it, I knew more about the DAR. Our guide explained to us that the main purposes of DAR were (paraphrased) educating about history, preserving historical objects, and promoting patriotism. The last phrase could perhaps give pause. Walking through DAR, the patriotism was definitely palpable. This mission definitely also shaped the presentation of the museum: unlike the forensic anthropology exhibit, which made a point to point out flaws, the DAR presented a *generally* glowing overview of American history. Although it did point to social aspects of American history vis-a-vis the ideal home exhibit, it still wasn’t necessarily a complex or nuanced picture. Similarly, the museum doesn’t give much information about DAR’s own past.
At the same time, I’d much rather a museum straight out tell me they want to encourage patriotism than act like they’re just giving me straight facts with no agenda. Plus, they’ve saved a number of nifty artifacts, and it made for a very pleasant tour. So while my progressive, historical-education-should-be-critical-and-complicated side cringed, I had a nice afternoon with Lizz, and it was a lovely way to end a whirlwind trip through DC.