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Archivally Correct

Another Washington institution diminished.

Aug 11, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 45 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Like Gaul, “Records of Rights” is divided into three parts. Each part concerns an oppressed group. The first, “Bending Towards Justice,” depicts the oppression of African Americans. The next part, “Remembering the Ladies,” depicts the oppression of women. The third, “Yearning to Breathe Free,” depicts the oppression of immigrants—though by this time, as Edward Rothstein noted in a scathing review in the New York Times, you’ll be at a loss to come up with a reason why any immigrant would want to come here. Under the section “Equal Rights,” we find “stories about Jim Crow laws, violence against Asian immigrants, and discriminatory voting laws.” Under “Rights to Freedom and Justice,” we find “stories about slavery and other forms of servitude, the Ku Klux Klan and mob violence, and Japanese internment.” American history is truly a glorious pageant. 

The exhibits readily acknowledge that the Founders and other powerful white men talked a good game. But the curators are here to make us wake up and smell the coffee, with the goal of “perfecting democracy,” as the press release said. The juxtaposition of artifacts makes the point clear. The curators take care that any glimmer of American idealism—say, the deed to the Statue of Liberty, included in the immigrant exhibit—is quickly snuffed out with a companion artifact: in this case, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The original 19th Amendment is shown, recognizing women’s right to vote. A grand achievement, yes? Look right next to it: the Equal Rights Amendment, “introduced in Congress as a way to end discrimination against women.” America rejected it. Pfffft

Events of little or no historical significance, however interesting in themselves, are elevated into landmarks simply because they echo the curators’ parochialism: the Zoot Suit riots, the Double V campaign by the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper, Muhammad Ali’s “fight for justice.” I am one of many millions of lucky Americans who had forgotten all about the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977—until I ran into a large section devoted to “The Spirit of Houston,” complete with video and still pictures: “Attendees at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston are shown here supporting privacy of one’s body.” At the same time, major strands of American history are ignored altogether, though they are surely essential to the work of the Archives. Evidently the major contribution the military made to American life was to get desegregated after World War II. That was the war when all those Japanese Americans got interned. 

“What About Contemporary Issues?” the curators ask at various points in the exhibit. They answer with a disclaimer that they simply lack the material to deal with current controversies: “Most of the records in ‘Records of Rights’ were created before 1980 because the National Archives generally receives permanent records when they are 30 years or older.”

It’s a sly evasion, for even the most manic 12-year-old will see current controversies hovering everywhere around the exhibit, with the unfailing message that much work remains to be done in our democracy-perfection project. We learn about the “victims” in the war on drugs (not innocent bystanders caught in gang crossfire, but dealers harshly sentenced for selling crack). The section on women’s rights proceeds blow by blow until it reaches a triumphant culmination: a photograph showing President Obama signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009. Mrs. Pelosi looks particularly happy. And we get a 1949 letter from Harry Truman to a friend who had criticized the president’s plan to socialize the nation’s medical care. 

“Nobody is working for socialized medicine,” Truman writes, in the same peevish, imperial tone that his admirers call “plain speaking.” “There are a lot of people like you who need straightening out on this subject.” Some things never change.

Meanwhile, as they wander from injustice to injustice, visitors will likely begin to feel the drag of the décor, which weighs as heavily on the spirit as the exhibits themselves, for all the bright flourishes of touchscreens and video. Cyclone fencing and cinder block evoke the immigrant experience; another fence is intended to show the barriers thrown up against marching suffragettes; badly painted walls of faux brick under a corrugated metal ceiling suggest a segregated bus station in the 1950s Deep South. Stenciled on one wall are the words “PRIVATE PROPERTY.” The words are meant to be chilling.

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