Me! Me! Me! That is the cry, now often heard, as history is retold. Tell my story, in my way! Give me the attention I deserve! Haven’t you neglected me, blinded by your own perspectives? Now let history be told not by the victors but by people over whom it has trampled.
And why, after all, should it be any different? Isn’t that the cry made by most of us? We want to be acknowledged, given credit for our unique experiences. We want to tell our stories. We want to convert you from your own narrow views to our more capacious perspective.
I am exaggerating slightly — but only slightly. In recent years, I have been chronicling the evolution of the “identity museum” or “identity exhibition,” designed to affirm a particular group’s claims, outline its accomplishments, boost its pride and proclaim, “We must tell our own story!”
These cries have been made with varying degrees of urgency and justice. But in the last few weeks, with the opening of a highly tendentious exhibition about Muslim science at the New York Hall of Science in Queens and the unveiling of a highly ineffectual mishmash at the President’s House in Philadelphia, the identity exhibition has reached new lows.
In both cases, there is an accusation of injustice and an attempt to revise history. In the science show, the charge is muted and persistent, but the case is made only by distorting history and facts. At the Philadelphia site, many of the claims are fierce — and some just — but they too end up distorting history by demanding the sacrifice of other perspectives.
Of course, every recounting of past events has exaggerations and limitations. Even the great imperial museums of Vienna, London and Paris make an argument: they are meant to reflect the power and grandeur of their creators. Such museums are monuments, temples mythically recounting an empire’s origins, displaying its accomplishments, affirming its power and its encyclopedic grasp.
The placement of totem poles in classic museums of natural history, for example, is a consequence of 19th-century convictions, also imperial, that they were created by peoples who were closer to the natural world — part of natural history rather than the history of civilization.
To a certain extent, the identity museum is a polemical response to such museums. And revenge can be extreme. The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington — a pioneering example of the genre — jettisons Western scholarship and tells its own story, leading one tribe to solemnly describe its earliest historical milestone: “Birds teach people to call for rain.”
Through a gauze of romance, that museum portrays an impossibly peace-loving, harmonious, homogeneous, pastoral world that preceded the invasion of white people — a vision with far less detail and insight than the old natural history museums once provided.
Sometimes, though, the identity impulse is illuminating, as in the Nordic Heritage Museumin Seattle, which gives a Scandinavian angle to the settling of the Pacific Northwest. Sometimes it involves an unusual twist: the new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia shapes an identity that emphasizes not its distinctions from the American mainstream, but its connections to it: identity is characterized as assimilative.
Then there are the two most recent examples. The President’s House site is where the nation’s executive mansion stood from 1790 to 1800. And a display there could have provided some unusual insight into the American past, because not only did George Washington, as he shaped the institution of the presidency, sleep there, so did nine of his slaves. On Independence Mall in Philadelphia, which is devoted to ideas of American liberty, it would have made sense for this site to explore the conjunction of these two incompatible ideas — slavery and liberty — particularly as both were knit into the nation’s founding.
Instead, during eight years of controversy, protests and confrontations, the project (costing nearly $12 million) was turned into something else. Black advocacy groups pressed the National Park Service and the city to create an exhibition that focused on enslavement. Rosalyn McPherson, the site’s project manager, emphasized in an interview that the goal was to give voice to the enslaved. Community meetings stressed that slaves had to be portrayed as having “agency” and “dignity.” A memorial to all slaves was erected, inscribed with a roster of African tribes from which they were taken — a list that has no clear connection to either the site or the city.
The result is more than a little strange. One black advocacy group’s leader, Michael Coard, who was placed on the site’s oversight committee, wrote an angry, influential essay on the Web site of his organization, Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, that was just in its analysis of historical neglect, but distorting in its all-consuming strategy. It would allow no differentiation and qualification, treating the site almost as if it were the Slave Market of Charleston.
Even in the context of 18th-century slavery, though, this house (long demolished) must have been unusual: its internal structure may have teetered with the nation’s own paradoxes, resisting easy characterization. There is no conclusive evidence, for example, that it held “slave quarters.” In a city with more free blacks than slaves, the house sheltered more indentured and paid servants than slaves; accounts suggest that sleeping quarters may have mixed both race and status. John Adams, who also lived in this mansion, didn’t even own slaves.
Moreover, the scanty historical background presented in the exhibition’s annotated illustrations is almost mischievously diminishing. During the 10 years in which Philadelphia was the national capital and Washington and Adams were shaping the new country there, what we see of the “upstairs” world is this: unrest (riots opposing Adams’s policy regarding France), protest (against the Jay Treaty), fear (a yellow-fever epidemic) and hypocrisy (Washington is shown with a disdainful look as he awards a medal to a proud Seneca Indian leader). And the architecture of the site makes it seem as though we are standing in an open-air ruin.
The result: an important desire to reveal what was once hidden ends up pulling down nearly everything else, leaving a landscape as starkly unreal as the one in which Washington could never tell a lie. It is not really a reinterpretation of history; it overturns the idea of history, making it subservient to the claims of contemporary identity politics.
This approach is even more sweeping in the exhibition about Muslim science, “1001 Inventions,” at the Hall of Science. It claims to show how a millennium-long Golden Age of Islamic science lasting into the 17th century anticipated the great inventions and discoveries of the Western world.
And indeed, before the 13th century, there was an extraordinary confluence of genius and innovation, particularly around Baghdad. But almost everything here is exaggerated. The actual period of invention is less than half of that suggested. Many achievements, said to match or anticipate ones that followed in the West, are best seen as important predecessors. Some assertions, based on slim evidence, are almost literally imaginary. And accusations and implications of neglect of Muslim enterprise ignore extensive citations in Renaissance manuscripts and later Western histories.
The exhibition also pays minimal attention to the very element that made Baghdad so important before its destruction in 1258: the cosmopolitan impact of interacting cultures. Influences are casually mentioned when they should be sharing center stage. Persian pre-Islamic breakthroughs, the confluence of innovations from China and India, the heritage of Christian scholarship from Syria, the importance of Byzantine Christianity with its links to ancient Rome, and the scholarly preoccupations of the region’s Jewish communities — these are scarcely noticed, minimized or ignored. The main point made about one of the few non-Muslim figures mentioned — Musa ibn Maymun (better known as the 12th-century Jewish physician and philosopher Maimonides) — is that his work demonstrated the influence of “Muslim colleagues” and drew on “Muslim philosophy.”
The show’s mission, we are explicitly told, is to “promote” Muslim heritage internationally and to strengthen Muslim identity and pride. Nearly a million people are said to have seen it in London and Istanbul and in smaller touring shows. The avidity of the acclaim is embarrassing: a version was shown at the United Nations and in the British Parliament. Classrooms in Britain have embraced its curriculum materials. Yet much of it is politically motivated exaggeration.
So both these identity exhibitions sacrifice the complications of history for the sake of identity. But consider: both of these presentations also end up neglecting the very forces that ultimately shaped revolutions in thought and practice.
In the upstairs world of Washington and Adams, so blatantly ignored in the Philadelphia site, was the beginning of a national experiment: the faltering and difficult task of shaping a new society in which equality and liberty would indeed become governing principles, ultimately weakening the institution of slavery.
And in the Golden Age of Islam, however we define it, the culture of learning was controlled by the mosques. As the fascinating book “The Rise of Early Modern Science,” by Toby E. Huff, suggests, this may have actually limited scientific research and its transmission. More important than Muslim control may have been the spirit of dissent evident in the words of some major figures, the free-thinking challenges that made scientific inquiry possible, the mixing of cultural currents that tested varying perspectives.
And those were the forces that ultimately led to the Western Enlightenment, with its more universalist claims and its recognition of slavery’s evils, and to a Golden Age that may still be going on. The Enlightenment had its limitations, of course. But it also shaped the great museums of the West. And many identity museums have yet to absorb that more transcendent vision.