“This Land Is Your Land” : Four Days in Washington DC

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The thing about Washington DC is you have to brace yourself for the patriotism before you arrive. It’s over a decade since I last visited the nation’s capital, and as this was just about a week before September 11th I was prepared to encounter a very different city this time round. Much has changed and the events and repercussions of September 11th are so entwined with the city’s DNA now, it’s almost impossible to walk from one end of a street to another without encountering some subtle, (or not so subtle), reminder that America is not the country it was on September 10th 2001. I gave up counting how many pieces of the World Trade Centre I saw displayed in various museums. The first piece of shrapnel I encountered was deeply moving. After the third it began to feel a little crass. There are no easy answers to how a tragedy of this magnitude should be commemorated but I must confess to feeling a little sickened by the sight of a tourist, (American not international), taking pictures of the various photos, and artefacts removed from Ground Zero which are on display at the Newseum, (a reasonably new museum dedicated to the history of the free press in the US, which is, in most every aspect, extremely well put conceived).

I thoroughly love DC. I had an amazing time here including a fantastic reading hosted by Solas Nua and a wonderful catch up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in almost eight years. My hosts, Paddy and Darlene were exceptionally wonderful people who made proper tea and were happy to talk late into the night. I sucked the life out of the free museums, walking miles and miles in inappropriate shoes to take advantage of all the amazing art and history collected in such beautiful buildings. I’ll even commend DC’s fantastic underground system which is clean, (clean, I tell you, London!), efficient, and extremely easy to negotiate. It is a great city and much more lively, cultured and safe-feeling than the last time I visited.

However, there’s a little something about Washington DC which irks me. There’s very little humility here, very little room for dissent. Outside the Lincoln Memorial, I was greeted with a sign which read, “please keep your national monuments tidy.” Im pretty sure that there are no similar signs in London or Edinburgh and confidant we don’t have any such thing in Belfast. DC is a city, which despite the tremendous number of international tourists who swing through the Mall each year, views itself as primarily existing for the American visitor. For the average US citizen, visiting DC is as close to a modern pilgrimage as they’ll ever come. Here, surrounded on all sides by the gleaming monuments of their country’s history and the glaring absence of litter, they can find out things they never even thought they wanted to know about their presidents, (shoe size, First Lady’s wardrobe, names of the presidential dogs), breach the sanctuary of the White House, and hear the old, old stories of America retold, for free, in the world’s best museums.

This, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Every country is entitled to celebrate its own culture and history once in a while. However, DC doesn’t seem prepared to leave any question unanswered. Much of America’s history is ambiguous and troubled, yet even the most difficult periods of the nation’s history appear already resolved by the time they’re curated in a Smithsonian exhibition. The inference here is that everyone passing through the corridors of the National Museum of American History automatically falls on the right thinking side of the debate when it comes to Civil Rights or Vietnam, foreign policy in regards to the Middle East or even the Civil War. Many of these events and issues are still unresolved within American culture and yet in DC the good and the true, the essential patriot seems already triumphant.

I’m a museum snob. I have extremely high standards for what I perceive to be good museums. I could offer many of the criticisms listed above to the Titanic Experience in Belfast and a host of other museums and heritage experiences I’ve visited over the years. I cannot fault DC for the accessibility and standard of their exhibits or the sheer volume of material curated here. The very idea of so much “free museum” and the “free knowledge” which comes with it is intrinsically tied to my notions of civil liberty. However, I don’t like to be patronised or force fed some overly simplified meta-narrative. I like ambiguity and as such my favourite thing in Washington DC was the exhibition of American folk art I saw at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, for it was an unholy and disparate collection of paintings and sculptures reflecting the perimeters of American culture and it neither tried, nor needed, to resolve or even compliment itself in order to be thoroughly enticing. More of this sort of thing please DC.

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