From Washington

Today’s blog post is by ICCHS’s Rhiannon Mason, who has just returned from a trip to Washington, DC.

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Last week I was in Washington DC for a few days to attend an interdisciplinary workshop at the Smithsonian Institution. It was organized by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and the International Storytelling Center, Jonesborough, Tennessee, which is now headed up by an ICCHS graduate, Kiran Singh Sirah (see Kiransinghsirah.wordpress.com).

The workshop brought together cultural heritage professionals, storytellers, folklorists, artists, educators and not-for-profit organisations with peace-building professionals. The aim of the project is to develop our understanding of how culture can be used to foster intercultural dialogue, understanding and cross-cultural empathy between communities in conflict. The workshop was extremely thought-provoking and stimulating. It was a great opportunity to meet people from other fields which I wouldn’t normally encounter. It also helped me to think through some ideas I have been discussing recently with some colleagues in ICCHS around questions of dialogue and the potential for empathy in museum work. The workshop is the first step in a longer-term project so hopefully it is just the beginning of many future collaborations.

While in Washington I also made the most of the opportunity to visit as many museums and heritage sites as possible. I didn’t manage everything but I did make it to:

On the Mall
• Lincoln Memorial
• WWII memorial
• Vietnam Veterans Memorial
• Vietnam Women’s Veterans Memorial
• Washington Memorial
• Korean War Memorial

Museums:
• Smithsonian Castle
• National Museum of Natural History
• National Museum of American History
• U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
• National Museum of the American Indian
• National Gallery of Art
• Hirshhorn Gallery
• Freer Gallery

Seeing the building site of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) – just next to the Washington Memorial – was really exciting. I’ve been reading about this online for ages and even shown President Obama’s ground-breaking speech about it in my lecture on museums and identity. I hope to be able to come back to see it when it opens in two years’ time. It promises to be a really significant museum – although it will raise the question of what then will be covered in the National Museum of American History (NMAH). How will the various subject-specific institutions like NMAAHC and the Museum of the American Indian relate to NMAH with its more general remit?

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was both as powerful and subtle as the many writings about it suggest. In fact, the whole memorial complex on the mall was extremely interesting. I was struck by the way that many of the memorial cross-reference each other; for example, the WWII memorial makes reference to both Lincoln and Washington and their ideals as a way of explaining why it was important for the US to participate in WWII. The overall effect of the Mall is to create a strong statement about the founding principles of the nation and what – from the point of view of the presidents, memorial makers and museum founders – it means to be American.

Seeing Judy Garland’s ruby slippers in the National Museum of American History was an unexpected treat given the film, the Wizard of Oz, was a childhood favourite of mine!

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