As soon as more than sixty Iraqi public officials sat down in our auditorium, I knew I was facing a tough audience. These men and one woman (with a few female officials and interpreters) have been through a very tumultuous period marked by dictatorship, invasion, civil war, suicide bombings, and the rigors of electoral politics. I had twenty minutes to discuss a serious and complex topic—how can a national history museum create a greater understanding of national identity? In my prepared remarks, I observed that a national museum must maintain a delicate balance between celebration and criticism. We try to present a consensus view of history while recognizing the conflicts and divisions that mark our past. I concluded that sustaining the trust and loyalty of museum visitors required the museum to tell the whole story, even those unpleasant chapters of our history.
After I showed them some images of the museum’s treasured collections—Jefferson’s writing table, Greenough’s statue of George Washington, the Woolworth’s lunch counter, Dorothy’s ruby slipper, and an 8th century dinar from Iraq—I invited our guests to tour the Star-Spangled Banner gallery and the exhibition on the life of Abraham Lincoln. They spent over an hour on these tours and were clearly engaged in the topics of patriotic symbols, civil war, political assassination, and national reconciliation.
Explaining the significance and popularity of the ruby slippers, however, was more challenging. A few members of the group were familiar with the classic American fairy tale and the pivotal role the slippers play in bringing Dorothy home to Kansas. But for most of this delegation, this story held little interest or meaning. They paid more attention to the cleanliness of the museum and the hospitality of the staff. And they remained engaged in some big questions—can a divided nation find unity in its shared heritage? Can history be a resource to understand our own times? My hope was that their brief visit to the National Museum of American History offered some potential answers.
Brent D. Glass is Director of the National Museum of American History.