In Washington DC this weekend, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the majesty and wealth of the buildings and institutions spread out grandly in the heart of the city.
The many museums of the Smithsonian, all of which are free, boast what must be the best-displayed, best-run, most impressive set of collections to be found in such concentrations anywhere. They are a reminder of what American wealth and ingenuity can accomplish, when tax dollars are put to good use!
But there is a darker side on display in the museums too, which links back to the political establishment and the way the reality of this country has never quite lived up to our ideals.
At the Museum of Natural History there is a remarkable exhibit, funded by David Koch no less, on the origins of the human species. The scale of human evolution is made quite clear: our ancestry reaches back millions of years, but homo sapiens as we know ourselves today is a young species, a mere footnote to the huge sweep of terrestrial mammalian existence.
In that very short period of time, we have managed to wipe out millions of other species, many of them also present the museum in stuffed form, or as skeletons, or—in the case of the butterfly and insect exhibit—as specimens locked behind glass.
Most of that destruction occurred since the 1950s, when the American corporate capitalist assault began in earnest, with chemical warfare-style agriculture, the razing of the forests, the strip mines, and the suburban sprawl.
The Museum of American History tells more of this sad story, albeit inadvertently, in an unspoken subtext. The transportation exhibit is the biggest and best I’ve ever seen, but makes no mention of how the invention of the combustion engine paved the way for human destruction of wildlife and wild lands on a vast and unprecedented scale.
The huge exhibit on the military history of the United States, from the American Revolution to Afghanistan, brilliantly illustrates the military development of the country, from our start as “rebels” fighting against heavy taxation by the King, through the trench warfare of World War I, the ignoble nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to Vietnam and beyond.
The exhibits are lavish and beautifully curated, but the untold story is the staggering waste of human life, treasure and creativity, drawn to the service of Thanatos, Freud’s famous “death instinct.”
The American Indian Museum, built like a sandstone mesa with its prow defiantly facing the U.S. Capitol, reminds us that the human spirit has many facets, and it’s hard to keep Eros down.
From the ashes of near annihilation by savage Euramerican military forces, as well as the ravages of disease and cultural tyranny, the native tribes of North America built this beautiful museum as a testament to the resilience and creativity of their peoples, as well as their South American brethren, who are also represented at the museum.
This is no monument to vanished cultures, but rather a tribute to peoples who have survived, proud and independent and eager to tell their stories and preserve their cultures for the future.
In Washington DC I found much to be proud of, and also many reminders of the shamefulness of our history over the past 235 years of our official existence as a nation.
Time is a funny thing—it certainly seems like history has been speeding up in the past 50 years, as our technological innovations continue to connect, concentrate and expand our collective knowledge base at an exponential rate.
What happens between now and November 2012, the next Presidential election, could have the power to radically change the course of history yet again. The key seems to lie in those restive crowds turning out in ever larger droves under the Occupy banners.
Will we be creative and innovative enough as a people to reinvent ourselves as a nation truly dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—not just for the 1%, and not just for human beings, but for all the magnificent living beings, flora and fauna, with whom we have shared this planet since we all first emerged out of the frozen wastelands of the Holocene thousands of years ago?