THOSE OF US WHO EARN>ql our livings in the museum profession well appreciate that in the current political and cultural climate, any media attention is a blessing—yet I feel obliged to point out some factual errors and glaring omissions made by Mark Jenkins in his review of the Octagon and Anacostia Museums’ exhibition “Southern City, National Ambition: The Growth of Early Washington, D.C., 1800-1860” (Gallery, 10/27).
This joint project, the result of a two-year collaboration between the museums and an exhibition which includes over 150 rare artifacts, is unique by any standards. That such a partnership (one between two institutions with such seemingly different audiences and collections) should ever be attempted, let alone successfully accomplished, is worthy of respect.
That Jenkins fails to “get” the many signs which link these two halves of one whole is disturbing. While the display of Taylor artifacts at the Anacostia may be easy to misunderstand as a useful junction, the rather large green video kiosks housing the interactive video installations at both sites seem less easy to overlook. Perhaps Jenkins chose not to mention this innovative technology to further his point that an exhibition about antebellum Washington brings little of anything new or educational to visitors.
As a scholar of Washington, D.C., then, he should know that, in fact, very little has actually been published about the subjects of race relations and the municipal climate of this geographic area before the Civil War, and that the vast majority of documents and photographs incorporated into this exhibition have never been on public display before. The four essays in the accompanying publication don’t appear as text anywhere in the exhibition; instead, the book serves to enhance a show that offers an impressive amount of artifacts from a period where few such objects still exist.
The book, the video, as well as the numerous education programs developed by both museums all serve to embellish, on different levels, what various visitors see in the galleries, what they may know from history lessons, as well as what they experience on the streets of Washington, D.C., today.