Sunday, February 7, 2010

Constructing America's Past

Monticello Official Tours:

The practice of historic preservation in America reflects a tendency to examine the past through subjective, often rose-tinted glasses. While its official tour service touts Monticello as the “house that Jefferson designed and built for himself and his family,” Jefferson’s selection of already popular designs suggests that he was “an eclectic consumer of architectural images more than a creator” (Upton, 33). Artwork decorating the Capitol continues the tradition of a falsified past. Reliefs depicting only the white male experience helped contribute “to a fiction of the American experience…and reinforced these myths as a part of American history (Green Fryd, 6). Even the preservation of the nation’s folk tradition in the Library of Congress fell victim to subjectivity. Two of its protectors, John and Alan Lomax, purported to be impartial folklorists documenting the music in a pure and unadulterated form, but their efforts to both preserve and popularize folk shaped conceptions of our musical past (Filene, 620). When the National Museum of the American Indian and the “The West as America” exhibit each departed from such traditional representations of American history, they were assailed by critics.

The struggle to adhere to this rigid canon of history further manifests itself in the Whitney Museum’s "The American Century: Art and Culture 1900-1950.” Though it once thrived with controversial exhibits, the title of Jacob Weisberg’s article, “The Whitney on Prozac,” sums up the museum’s newly-changed character. “The American Century” exhibit bares no hint of historic revisionism and strives to avoid political incorrectness. In preserving American history through one authoritative voice, the Whitney, like many museums and historic sites, has degenerated into “a bland, textbook summary of American culture that eschews any explicit judgments at all for fear someone might disagree" (Weisberg).

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