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Unfortunately, about the best thing that can be said about Marion BarryThe Legacy, the new exhibit/roast at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, is that it’s absolutely free.
The entryway to the exhibit, which sits in the dingy basement gallery A-6, features a snapshot of Mayor Barry with President Clinton. Considering the rhetoric of city pride that dominated the Barry years, it is an astonishing inclusion: After two decades of demands for statehood and declarations of world-city status, D.C. is reduced to showing off a generic snap of our mayor with Bill Clinton. The mayor of Peoria probably has one of those, tooand curators of an exhibit on said mayor would have the sense to realize their town has more going for it than a mayoral photo op with the president.
Of course, we soon learn that our mayor has also met Walter Mondale, Ed Koch, Stevie Wonder, Esther Rolle, Billy Graham, and Jacques Cousteau. Top that, Wayne Curry!
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Nominally organized into four sections, The Legacy shows off such subjects as D.C.’s changing face, Barry’s international role, and his civil rights career. Some of the pictures are quite wonderfula portrait of young Barry and his mother, for instance, or a picture of Barry and a nurse after police beat the future mayor up during a 1960s arrestbut there’s little context. What was D.C. before him? What changed? It would be interesting to weigh the historical arguments, but The Legacy doesn’t make any.
Instead, there are just threadbare odds and ends from a career in politics. A few make for great viewing, like the enlarged 1978 Washington Post editorial endorsing Barry. The paper of record argued that he had the energy and creativity to change D.C., and that his rabble-rousing legacy was in fact a positive thing. Likewise, pictures from anti-apartheid protests remind people that once upon a time, the D.C. mayor’s officewith its home rule and civil rights inheritancewas tied to a global crusade for justice.
But The Legacy doesn’t really aim to be comprehensivewhich is too bad. Tens of thousands of Washingtonians believe Barry made a major impact on their lives. With a hostile city media and a critical historical community, those who admire his legacy could use a voice to chronicle what they won during his runan argument the exhibit could have helped carry. Instead, it lets us know that in 16 years atop Washington, Marion Barry got to meet cool people.Michael Schaffer
Marion BarryThe Legacy runs through Nov. 28.