How Does A State Tell Its Story?

The question emerged as I strolled around one of Washington DC’s fabulous Smithsonian Museums – The Museum of American History. It isn’t a particularly original question. In fact, I’m sure questions similar to this have stimulated many peices of research and writing across the world. But it is not one I have pondered many times.

After a tour around the USA Capitol building and a stop past the Lincoln Memorial (feeling a little guilty at my cynicism to the saturation of America’s story with phrases of liberty, justice and democracy) I sought refuge from the bone-numbing cold in the Museum of American History. As much as I cringe to admit it, the politics of war fascinate me, so I headed straight to the section on American Wars.

The Revolutionary War and Civil War were the largest features. Also covered were the War of 1812 against Britain,war with Spainish Mexico, the Viet Nam War and small pieces of 9/11 and the Iraq War. I am sure there were sections on World War I and II, but I think I skipped them. The war against the Creek Indians got a brief mention also, and possibly the first Gulf War (I was getting a bit museumed-out by that point). The displays were thoroughly interesting and well-presented, and I enjoyed meandering through, imaginging what it would have been like to be drinking apple cider in a camp as I prepared for battle the next dawn, or advancing on the enemy, shoulder to shoulder with my fellow combatants so that our imprecise rifle shots actually hit the opposing flesh.

I appreciated the attempts to present different perspectives in some of the story’s, in particular the War with Mexico where we got to listen to perspectives from both American and Mexican military leaders. However, this was limited. There was a video of a nurse who worked in the Viet Nam War who told a story of how they saved a Viet Cong baby, finishing up with a statement “so, when people say we killed babies, I’m telling you about how we saved babies”. Fair point but just a little too pointed.

Three things struck me.

  • There was no mention of the Cold War and the meddling of the USA in other countries’ internal conflicts (with the exception of Viet Nam, of course). 
  • The stories told were predominantly those of white men. Yes, the most prominant figures in most of the early  wars were white men (Washington, Lincoln, Jackson etc.). But there are so many more awe-inspiring, insightful and powerful stories to tell. What about the role of indigenous Indians in American wars? Although there is a new American Indian Smithsonian Museum, I still thought that their role in the USA war history was worth more than a couple of sentences about the Creek War and Trail of Tears. Women were referred to about three times, in passing: the nurse in Viet Nam; a nurse in the Civil War; and the women who followed their men to camps. How different would the story of America’s Wars be if it was told through the lives of the women who lived through them? And the role of African-Americans – slaves, the manumitted, the escaped… Again, there was a separate section on the slave-trade and slave life. But the different positions and actions of Africans and African-Americans in American wars was not featured at all. What about the Chinese, German and Japanese Americans who lived through wars against their ancestral homelands, as Americans?
  • The underlying concepts of freedom, democracy, justice and expansion of territory that imbued the entire display. The sense of power and triumphalism – that this is the greatest nation on earth, and that all wars to protect and expand it are justified. OK, some of the wars could probably have passed the test of Just War Theory. And the outcomes of some have quite probably led to greater justice. But at times I felt like I was a bitter cynic who was questioning solid truths about a country I know relatively little about, at the same time knowing that I was right to question. It left me feeling uncomfortable.

Leaving the War section, ready to clear my head with the chill wind, I passed by the section on American First Ladies. I didn’t bother to go in. The opening displayed a beautiful red ballgown, which only rubbed salt into the already smarting irritation that women were essentially invisible in America’s history of war. Is this the only way it is deemed appropriate to highlight American women?

And that’s when the question emerged. Just how does a State choose to tell its story? Given – the Smithsonium has limited funds, probably relies on the Government for support and is tasked with sharing a lot of information in a very small space to an extremely diverse audience. But even so, in a country founded on immigration, with such a diverse ethnic population, why not tell stories that highlight that diversity? If justice, freedom and democracy are actually important values for the USA, why not show this in the stories of history, rather than just say it?

Anyway, my next trip will be to Te Papa where I hope to ask the same question – how do we tell our country’s story? I’ll certainly try to be objective but no doubt the years of enculturation as a NZer will slowly sand off the veneer. But it is an important question to ask, not only of our museums but in how we present ourselves every day to the world. We tell our story in a myriad of different ways –  in our social statistics, our legislation, the statements we make at the United Nations, the way we deliver our Overseas Development Assistance, the state of our prisons and mental health wards, the way we treat our pets. I wonder what answers others reach about NZ when they ask that question.

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3 responses to “How Does A State Tell Its Story?

  1. I’ve never been to the Smithsonian, so cannot hope to comment. I have been to TePapa though and was hartened (as a Dutch immegrant) that ‘my’ story is told, is part of the NZ heritage that is shown. As are other people’s stories.

  2. Thanks Ellie. Yeah, I’ve always thought NZ does pretty well in terms of representing our story in a reasonably inclusive and open way. But I know others would disagree strongly. On a slightly different, but related, point it would be interesting to know what was taught now in history at high school. When I was there we learnt about Tudor England. I would hope that our young people learnt more about the Land Wars and colonialism in NZ than I ever did.

  3. Outstanding site=D Hope to visit again.

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