Category Archives: History

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Last week I wrote a short piece about a carpet known as the Armenian Orphan Rug, woven by orphan refugees of the Armenian genocide, given to President Calvin Coolidge, and now too hot politically to be taken out of storage. The White House responded to my request for comment with the usual non-comment statement that answers and explains nothing. The World picked up the story and chatted with me on the Friday program.

I’ve also reviewed a couple of shows, the Byzantine art exhibition at the National Gallery (many beautiful things) and the Latino Art exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (also many beautiful things, but a poorly conceived show).

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The perils of “permanent” loan

When the creators of the original main exhibition of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum were gathering artifacts in Eastern Europe, much of the material was acquired on a long-term loan basis. Several of those involved in the negotiations say they believed those loans were essentially permanent. But in the case of material gathered in Poland, it turns out the loans were for twenty years and the museum must now renegotiate them. In many cases, that means material must be returned to Poland, and sometimes replaced with similar or equivalent pieces. But what to do about the barracks from Auschwitz, which is a major part of the museum’s “experience”-based exhibition? How can it be returned? And replaced with what? The problem is now vexing the museum, as I report in a piece in today’s The Washington Post.  Near the end, I ask the obvious question: Why are the Poles enforcing the legal details? Is it a symptom of yet more Polish discomfort with their awkward historical relationship to the Holocaust? Or, perhaps, something else:

The Polish insistence on the return may also reflect an evolution of its relationship to the past. Museum officials say that Polish conservation and stewardship of Holocaust sites and material have never been better.

The Poles may simply be adhering to what they view as their legitimate conservation obligations.

Warren Rosenblum, a professor of history at Webster University who studies the Holocaust, said there has been “a cultural awakening” in regard to the Holocaust in Poland, including more openness and professionalism in how the country deals with the subject and the material remnants of the genocide. But with that comes “a new kind of self-assertion and pride,” he said, and the sense that Poles want to “be in charge of this history, take ownership of it, be true to this legacy.”

 

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Zahi Hawass

I was in Cairo for a week, reporting on the cultural scene there. The first of the stories, a look at the trials, tribulations and general absurdities of all things Zahi Hawass ran today. Hawass, the longtime head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and now the Minister of State for Antiquities, resigned after Mubarak left, then returned to power about a month latter. During the interregnum, you started to hear some of the ice crack: Finally people could talk a little more candidly about the strengths and weaknesses of a man who holds life and death power over the careers of many an archaeologist. But as soon as this supreme showman was back in power, most critics in the West became reticent again. He’s simply a very powerful man and there’s no upside in being on his bad side. But they’re talking in Egypt. The problem is, whom can you trust?

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Thinking About Lincoln

I spent a few glorious days by the fire last month reading the speeches and letters of Abraham Lincoln. We’re about to enter a period of non-stop Civil War anniversaries, beginning this Saturday with the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s election in 1860. The Post will mark the event with a special section this Sunday, for which I wrote an essay on the meaning of Lincoln’s election and its lasting effects on the country. It tries to connect Lincoln’s sense of the two, competing economies of North and South with a larger idea of national purpose, and history.The way Americans worked, Lincoln seemed to argue, would determine the larger future of the nation:

In an 1859 speech, Lincoln described what he called “thorough work,” which meant not just productive farming, but mental and intellectual engagement with labor. He praised the effects of “thorough cultivation upon the farmer’s own mind,” and by extension, he argued that by “the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward.”

The economy of the South, however, wouldn’t take the nation onward, or upward, though it would very likely force us to move outward, as the South looked for new slave territory south of the border and in Cuba. That wasn’t a viable future for America.

The more I read Lincoln the more I sensed his frustration, arguing into the void with political opponents who could offer the larger nation nothing but more of the same, which was dragging everyone down. Have we changed? Here’s how the essay concludes:

If one reads the annals closely, however, it becomes clear that the Civil War legitimized something essential, and dark, that remains with us. Ultimately, the South was fighting for the right to be wrong, for the right to retain (and expand) something ugly and indefensible. It lost the war, and slavery was abolished. But the right to be wrong, the right to resist the progress of freedom, the right to say “no, thank you” to modernity, to leave the fences in disrepair and retreat into a world of private conviction, remains as much a part of the American character as the blood spilled to preserve the Union. Nothing great has been accomplished in America since the Civil War — not footsteps on the moon, or women’s suffrage, or the right (if not the reality) of equal, unsegregated education — without people also passionately fighting for that dark right, too.

 

 

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