Blending the past with the present

 Sam Smith – Attendance at history museums plummeted nearly 70% in 2020, thanks to the pandemic. Even in the best of times, though, history is not the easiest topic to gain broad interest, especially in an era in which it is given minor importance in public education and the media. 

I’ve been married to a historian for 55 years so the problems of the topic are not unfamiliar to me and I have found myself lately thinking about how to make history more appealing to a larger audience.As I once wrote, “I don’t rank as a museum expert, still I suspect I’m somewhere in the middle of the pack of those the experts are trying to attract. I love some museums, couldn’t care less about others, and prefer to have fun on a Saturday afternoon rather than engage in premeditated acts of somber self-education.” 

Lately, however, I’ve been having some new thoughts, inspired in part by having been an anthropology major where cultural past and present become shared parts of the same story. 

We have been taught to isolate history in our minds, but, in fact, everything we do today becomes history tomorrow. Past and present are inevitably blended. 

Years ago, I spent a week at the national Air & Space Museum while working on an article for the Illustrate London News. The museum at the time had two thirds more visitors than either the Louvre. Among the ways it fascinated me was that it failed to fit into one category, whether it be history or science, past or present. When I challenged its leaders about this, they cheerfully agreed.

I interviewed the director, Noel Hinners, boldly remarking at one point that I had found something almost childlike in his museum. He was not bothered in the slightest but said, “There is nothing more stultifying than being pushed into the common conception of adulthood. If enthusiasm, hopes and dreams are associated with childhood, I hope we never grow out of them.”

I remembered thinking: what other director of anything in Washington DC would say something like that?

And even the art museum curator Walter Hopps told me the museum had “more aesthetic appeal to most people than most art museums do for most people. I think there is something very atavistic about it. One of the root themes in art is quest – exploration.”

Recently I’ve been asking myself: what if today and yesterday were combined better? What if our historical societies and museums were to blend past and present and become centers for both yesterday’s history and today’s culture. We spend millions on history but little on showing people the actual culture in which they live. As we become more multicultural it becomes increasingly important that we learn more about people in our community who don’t live or look like us.

Thinking of my hometown of Washington DC, I quickly came up with several institutions that might be featured for both their past and present: a famed cafe in a heavily black neighborhood, a jazz center and an old fashioned former farmer’s market still functioning as a major site for folks in that ‘hood. What are the religions of importance, the architectural styles, and the ways in which life is different in DC than other cities? 

In short,  what if we gave our present culture the same respect as we give its history? Might we not enjoy and respect our present society in ways we haven’t?