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Guest Column

History, unadorned, should be enough

Published March 20, 2007


My thoughts often turn to the humbling fact that Americans are numb to their own history. Author Gore Vidal has called us "the United States of Amnesia."

A recent trip to Philadelphia reinforced Vidal's grim view - and so did reading some newspaper stories. My wife and I went to Philadelphia on an Elderhostel trip to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra and revisit the priceless Barnes collection. The trip also took us back to the area of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, national treasures we've visited before.

This visit included touring the National Constitution Center, a Disney-like confection that has been erected within spitting distance of the real American legacies like Independence Hall and that cracked bell. Here, following a theater-in-the-round, slide show and stentorian lecture on America, 100-plus "interactive exhibits" attempt to explain the country to the ignorant.

There are even exhibits that explain political cartoons of the era of American independence, where a volunteer wearing a microphone supplements the images on a huge screen by asking visitors questions a sixth-grade civics student should have already learned.

It was all handsomely turned out and simultaneously appalling. When last I stood in the restored Independence Hall some years before, it was sufficiently ennobling to see the restored but unadorned place where the founders actually crafted a nation.

The Liberty Bell, which has been moved hither and yon within the historical park over the years, remains a symbol even though you are now subject to search before gazing at it.

Worse yet, when we returned home, I was saddened to read that the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which operates George Washington's home at Mount Vernon, has recently committed $110-million to alleged improvements that will do what Philadelphia has done. It has created an orientation center that combines interactive exhibits and "an action-adventure film," as well as a theater that features genuine fake falling snow.

I was once a resident of Alexandria, Va., myself and valued those halcyon days when a drive down the parkway brought any visitor to that gorgeous and historic house. Those of us who actually like history could take comfort in the wood exterior made to look like stone, the Potomac overlook from the back of the place and the thought our first president and his wife resided there as real people.

Today, a statue of George and Martha, hand in hand with their grandchildren, greets the visitor before he or she ever enters the house. There is a one-twelfth scale model of Mount Vernon, just in case you don't know what you're going to see. The Washington Post quoted Emily Coleman Dibella, a PR spokeswoman, as justifying these embellishments because "some people think Washington fought in the Civil War ... "Yeah, and some Americans, as quoted on the Jay Leno show, think Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Chinese.

Congress seems to share the idea that Washington, D.C.'s great monuments need extra explaining to the thundering but uncomprehending herds.

Although additional security has been the cover story attached to the very, very expensive visitors centers being attached to the Washington Monument and the Capitol itself, most of the new visitors will probably be worn out by the interactive exhibits before they ever reach the genuine article. Alas, I still remember those distant days when any American could walk into the Capitol at any hour and just absorb its unique message.

Perhaps, if the 53 percent of registered voters who didn't go to the polls in the November election were given free tickets to any of these places, they might come away with a better idea of what America is about. But I doubt that even the best of the orientation centers will teach them the lessons that unvarnished history, properly learned, should impart.

Jerry Blizin is a retired journalist living in Tarpon Springs.

[Last modified March 20, 2007, 00:43:01]

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