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National Mall identity politics just got kicked up a notch. The National Women’s History Museum, which the House signed off on last year, threw a gala last Tuesday with none other than Meryl Streep, who’s pitching in $2 million for the cause. The leaders of the effort, which got rolling in 1996, have set their sights on a vacant lot at 12th Street, Independence Avenue, C Street, and the Forrestal Building for the new museum. They’d pay a market rate price for it, if only Congress would vote to direct the General Services Administration to sell the land (the House passed the bill last year; Senator Susan Collins is shepherding it through the Senate).
Federal process wonks might reasonably ask whether that’s skipping a step: The National Capital Planning Commission, which has a say in most things monumental. The New York Times recently detailed the measures the NCPC has taken to steer museums away from the increasingly crowded Mall, or at least minimize the impact of those—like the African American History museum—that have already secured a spot. Although the Women’s History legislation includes language reaffirming NCPC’s authority, getting a location approved by Congress first is a more direct way of locking down prime real estate. The legislation authorizing the Museum of the American Latino, by contrast, directs a commission to work with the NCPC to select a location. All four of their proposed addresses are also on the Mall, and the NCPC has commented favorably on a few options—two of which are in already-existing buildings—but essentially vetoed one on the grounds of the Washington Monument.
It doesn’t appear that these two museums are in direct competition for specific locations, and certainly neither would denigrate the other’s right to a place on par with America’s greatest collections. But whenever a given group starts asking for space on the Mall, an ugly question hangs in the air: All these other groups got a memorial—what about us?
Joan Wages, CEO of the Women’s History Museum, explains that women need to take matters into their own hands, rather than waiting for the Smithsonian to fund a separate museum. “We talked to women who worked at American History and they told us women’s history loses the fight to whatever the primary issue of the day is according to the Smithsonian hierarchy,” she told PoliticsDaily.
“All we ask is permission to build a museum to honor half the nation’s population in a prestigious population,” a letter last year to Congress read. “The museums near the National Mall demonstrate the importance of that constituency.”
On the one hand, it’s tempting to say: The obsession with Mall frontage is silly. If you wanted a museum so badly, there are plenty of empty lots and vacant buildings in this city with neighbors that would love to have you fill them, and you wouldn’t even miss out on much foot traffic. The NCPC has identified 100 sites that would be suitable for new memorials.
On the other hand, though, as long as a Mall location is equated with an seat at the table of American democracy, we may as well let the major demographic groups in American history squeeze in there somewhere. With the possible exceptions of Asian-Americans and the GLBT community, women and Latinos would probably cover the bases. After they’re ensconced, people will forget any simmering resentment over one group getting a museum before another. If one is relegated to quarters further away, however, those resentments may forever fester.