The National American History Museum

How official sounding! Everything here in DC is very official. And preeminent.

Today I went to visit the Smithsonian American History Museum, also known as the (National American History Museum). I went with the full intention of looking at the Asian Pacific American Program’s Sweet and Sour Showcase on Chinese American food, but as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. As soon as I stepped into the museum, I could only think about the exhibits clearly in front of my face. And I missed Sweet and Sour all together.

This is what I did see: the exhibits on slavery at Monticello and on the First Ladies.

The gist of the exhibit on slavery at Monticello is this: Thomas Jefferson, despite being personally opposed to slavery and publicly committed to human equality, was a slave owner. He and his family bought and sold and owned generations of black families to maintain Monticello, the family estate. And when he died, all but seven of those slaves, were sold to pay his debts. Those seven slaves included Sally Hemings and his children with her. The exhibit also traces the lives of some of Jefferson and Heming’s descendants, who lived on both sides of the color line. I thought the exhibit did a really good job of presenting a fair but uncomfortable juxtaposition of Jefferson’s ideals and actions. The exhibit also has very nice family trees documenting the black families who worked on the plantation.

The First Ladies exhibit could also be called an exhibit of fancy dresses and White House china. Because that’s what it was, a display of dresses worn by Presidents’ wives, and examples of all the dinnerware ordered for the White House since George and Martha Washington. It’s not particularly deep or political, but damn, some of those  dresses were amazing (and old! I stood in front of one of Mary Todd Lincoln’s velvet dresses!). Clothes look so different in person than in pictures. Texture is such an important detail in person, and so lost in photographs.


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