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Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Quick Take: A day at the museum

Some people are obsessed with ancient Rome; I can’t stop thinking about these United States. Who are we? What do we stand for? What will the future hold? Since there’s no Ohio diner I can pose these questions to, the National Museum of American History seems as good a place as any to start.

There’s no prize for being one of the millions of people the museum welcomes each year, but I’ve taken at least half-a-dozen trips to and snapped hundreds of photos of the America on the Move exhibit. After yet another visit on Tuesday, let me tell you about two scenes from this collection of trolleys, trains and trucks that left me with more questions than answers.

A car salesman extolls the virtues of “Ventiports” and “Dynaflow Drive,” the latest products of American ingenuity and excess, to a married couple interested in purchasing a 1950 Buick Super Sedan. The people are mannequins, but the car, with its brilliant black paint and chrome trim, is real.

Just around the corner, a series of plaques tell the story of Park Forest, Illinois, a “not officially segregated” postwar Chicago suburb. Park Forest remained entirely white until 1959. A copy of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” sits behind a locked case; Norman Rockwell’s “New Kids in the Neighborhood,” a still life of integration in progress, hangs on the wall next to a photo of a highway.

From strip malls to suburbia, these displays are supposed to tell the tale of mid-century America. But they may as well document two entirely different realities. Some Americans happily bought atomic-age automobiles that ended up in the driveways of ticky-tacky homes in segregated suburbs. Some Americans couldn’t buy homes because of their creed or the color of their skin. Walking between the two displays, I saw the U.S. how it wants to be seen. And then I saw what it really looks like. Take away the Muzak, shiny car and salesmanship, and you’re left with an ugly America.

Can we brush all of this away as “the past,” or does it still stain our present? The museum makes no moral pronouncements. It offers no easy answers to those hard questions. In America on the Move, the U.S. is just on the move. These are the facts, the plaques seem to say. Now you must think for yourself.

I wondered: Is our country good or bad? Perhaps the U.S. just is, period. It’s complicated, and it can’t be summed up in a single world. As I learned in a different exhibit that day, Grace Wisher, a 13-year-old African American indentured servant, helped sew the flag in 1813 that inspired our national anthem.

What’s the connection between the Star-Spangled Banner, Buicks and bucolic suburbs? I wished I could parse the meaning of what I saw. I wished I could answer what it means to be an American. Instead, I left the museum, looked both ways and crossed the street onto the National Mall. The Washington Monument towered over me; the Capitol Building loomed in the distance.

To be American is to inherit nearly 250 years of history and not know what to make of it. All you can do is keep moving.

Ethan Benn, a senior majoring in journalism and mass communication, is the opinions editor.

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About the Contributor
Ethan Benn, Opinions Editor
Ethan Benn, a senior majoring in journalism and communication, is the opinions editor.
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