As one of the many supporters of the Historical Society of Washington, DC, and a Washington historian, I think it necessary to respond to two articles published in the Dec. 24, 2004, issue of the Washington City Paper: “2004: The Year D.C. History Died,” by Chris Shott, and “L’Enfant Terrible: The Real Reason the City Museum Failed,” by David Plotz. Together, the articles criticize the Historical Society, its efforts in the City Museum project, the D.C. historical community, and D.C. history in general.
On two points, Shott perpetuates the City Paper’s telling of half-truths. He criticizes the museum for having an entry fee and ridicules its ability to compete with national narratives available at the Smithsonian. He does not mention the Historical Society’s original intention to be free to the public, nor how the decline in tourism and the economy in general after Sept. 11 forced the museum to charge admission in order to get bank funding.
He further describes the Carnegie Library building as a “cheap new space,” without explaining that it cost $20 million to renovate the building, which had not been well maintained. The Historical Society raised most of that amount itself, with Congress’ $2 million appropriation making up only a small proportion. Clearly, quite a few people thought Washington’s history was not only interesting, but worth investing in. However, the organization expended all of its money opening the museum, leaving almost no support for marketing and PR. Neither did it leave money for operating and maintaining the building—which is exorbitantly expensive. Thus, the failure of the museum had more to do with expenses and the failure of marketing than its content. The result was that the museum was understaffed, underfunded, and unable to fully execute its vision and mission.
In his article, Plotz attempts to make three simple, but absurd, points: that there is no Washington history, that that which might be called Washington history is boring, and that all Washington history is sociology. In doing so, Plotz impugns the Historical Society’s local-history journal, Washington History, in particular. To make his case, he cites several older articles on early boardinghouses, city management of snow removal, and the archaeological findings at the MCI Center site. He neglects to note any more recent articles, which have investigated the desegregation of Washington’s schools, slavery and the underground railroad in Washington, early Washington baseball, a national African-American political leader who was also an important local community member, retrocession, Mayor Walter Washington, the 1968 Washington riots, and urban development in D.C., among others.
Because “boring” is a matter of individual taste, and because Plotz has a faulty conception of the fields of history and sociology, I will reserve my comments for his first point: that there is no Washington history. Instead, he argues that everything important that has happened in Washington has been national history. While Plotz is right that the local and national are often intimately intertwined in Washington, he takes his case to the extreme, saying that there are no “great historical events that reshaped the landscape of Washington and altered the lives of Washingtonians.” I imagine the black families who once lived in Georgetown or the people who once called Southwest home would both argue that urban renewal reshaped the landscape and altered their lives. There are plenty of other examples from which to choose.
Plotz also demonstrates a lack of understanding of and appreciation for local history’s ability to illustrate larger historical themes within a specific context, thereby making that history accessible, relevant, personal, and engaging. Saying that Lincoln’s assassination cannot be considered part of Washington’s local history is like saying that Kitty Hawk, N.C., cannot claim the Wright Brothers as part of its local history because their flight was of national historical significance. Though any local history has a limited audience, the fact that D.C. serves as the seat of the federal government complicates the city’s local history in interesting ways that can have a broader appeal. In Washington, the history of ordinary people, neighborhoods, and institutions occurred parallel to and intersected with the history of people and events of national import. In addition, the local city has often served as a stage for the nation, and the federal government has used D.C. to experiment with policy or law.
It is unfortunate that Washington does not have an alternative paper that supports the city’s cultural institutions. Neither Shott nor Plotz, for example, makes any mention of the fact that the Historical Society has received four awards since 1998 from the American Association for State and Local History; both the City Museum’s “Washington Perspectives” exhibition and the publication Washington History received recognition from this leading professional organization. It is also ironic that the City Paper negates the historical significance of Washington’s people, neighborhoods, events, and institutions—one can only wonder what its reporters think they are reporting on.
Whether the museum will reopen remains to be seen. However, the Historical Society of Washington, DC, remains. Though the museum has closed, the Kiplinger Library, located at the Carnegie Library building on Mount Vernon Square, is open Wednesday through Saturday to anyone interested in conducting research in its rich collections. The Historical Society’s magazine, Washington History, will continue to publish. These two institutions continue the Historical Society’s 110-year history of collecting, preserving, and disseminating Washington’s history. The city’s leaders must continue the support they demonstrated at the museum’s outset by assisting the organization in its efforts at this critical juncture. Opportunities abound for collaborative ventures that could pool the city’s historical and archival resources. The city has an interest in and a responsibility to explore and assist such ventures.
Senior Editor, Washington History