Monday, March 5, 2018

Finding Hope in Truth Telling

I have a memory of the Washington Monument, pink in the glow of the sunrise, as I taxied to the airport, quite a breathtaking image. I once worked for a company headquartered in DC so have made many trips there. Recently I was returning for a conference.  This time, however, it felt as if I was entering enemy territory, a sentiment I’ve never felt even with past presidents with whom I’ve disagreed. I used to feel as if this was in part my city. Now with the current White House occupant, it felt tarnished. 

It was a bit like my first and only visit to Germany. Prior to that visit I always considered going to Germany verboten. This was the country that murdered my family. What can I say? I’m slow to forgive. Now I know Germany has worked to come to terms with its history, but I had this very strange visceral reaction to the beautiful landscape as the train headed towards my destination. I was angry. How dare it be so beautiful after the horrors they wrought. Only my purpose justified that visit. I was part of the first group of Jewish genealogists to do research in the Holocaust records.

Last year I came to DC shortly after the election for the Women’s March. That too seemed like sufficient justification to enter enemy territory. So, what brought me this time? For a number of years, I’ve attended a museum conference focused on Jewish museums ( I’ve learned that as an artist who tells stories, much of what I do echoes the work of museums. This conference was focused on the responsibility that museums bear to create dialogue and to tell the important stories of our time and our history truthfully. At their best they are truth tellers and play an important role as our society undergoes turmoil. When we talk of the role of the press and of courts in holding up a society that values core principles, we also should consider the role of museums in educating, challenging and engaging the populace.

While the conference addressed these topics, my visits to national museums, also underscored this. The two portraits of the Obamas had recently been revealed and I decided to focus my one free day on the National Portrait Gallery. My niece met me at my hotel and we walked to the nearby metro. When we entered the Gallery, the main attraction was clearly the Obama portraits. President Obama’s was in the Presidential Gallery while Michelle was located in a different area of the museum. 

A line, beginning in a large covered atrium, snaked toward the painting for those who wanted to take a picture of themselves in front of it. While that seemed a bit silly to me, at least for myself, it was actually quite touching to see a young African American child before the portrait, for whom the Obamas represented the idea of possibilities once thought unreachable.

The Presidential Gallery (also online) soon captivated me beyond the Obama portrait. There is a portrait of every president and a description of them as a leader and the times in which they were called to lead. I was struck by the fact that slavery was an issue that  presidents began to struggle with in the 1830s and it left its imprint on every administration up until the Civil War and its aftermath.

Now I must admit that I was not happy about the idea of our current occupant taking up space in the gallery someday, but was somewhat reassured by the fact that the text did not sugarcoat anything. If they were corrupt, it hit it head-on. And yes, we had some who were considered corrupt long before Nixon or our most recent occupant. There were several who wrought damage that took many years to right. Andrew Johnson ascended to the presidency after Lincoln was assassinated and Reconstruction took a turn as he supported returning power to the white Southern planters and depriving freed slaves of their rights. He came within one vote of being impeached.

Even the “good” Presidents had their flaws. It noted that Teddy Roosevelt opposed birth control for women, and immigration. Teddy!! For the most part they were men of their times and carried the beliefs and prejudices of those times. I was struck by the fact that Lincoln alone, seemed to transcend his times.

I was surprised and pleased to discover a painting of the four women Supremes and found much of interest in the museum's artwork.

At the end of my conference we met at the US Holocaust Museum and went through the exhibition. Here I was struck by the way Hitler positioned himself as the only one who could improve the plight of the country and the use of the People’s radio to pump out propaganda to the populace. The same position is assumed by the current occupant and the radio has become the cyber sphere. I closed my visit with several hours in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture after hearing the director speak eloquently at the conference. The museum goes from African culture and slave ships to Jim Crow laws and intimidation by lynching, providing a different perspective on the debates referenced in the portrait gallery.  It concludes by celebrating the influence black culture has had on our society in its many dimensions.

Normally I don’t get past the National Gallery. This visit felt especially rich in the history it shared and its relevance for today. The museums gave me hope that truths will be told.