Washington museums show how memory can light the way to the future
Jan 6, 2020
I traveled to Washington, D.C. for the first time when I was a high school senior in February 1965. Like most school trips, it was jam-packed with many visits to the museums and historic monuments that grace this city. I recall going to the National Archives, taking the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument. I stood in awe at the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. Later trips took me to other museums, the National Gallery of Art, and several of the other Smithsonian galleries. These places give D.C. a special importance in our nation’s heritage.
Museums, however, are so much more important than being mere reservoirs for past moments and events. Museums must also be places where memory lights the way for the future. Museums are the intersections of the past and tomorrow where the lessons of yesterday inform the future. On one subsequent trip to D.C., I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum where I stood speechless at the visual remembrances from a horrific chapter in human history. Upon departing that museum, I picked up a memorial card of a victim of the Holocaust. I cherish it still and keep it in a basket of mementos beneath the altar of my residence chapel. It is a card which commemorates a young Dutch Jew by the name of Marthinjn Wijnberg who in January 1943 was sent off to Auschwitz at the age of 23 and was never heard from again. I regularly pray for this young man as I offer Mass in my chapel.
The displays in that museum must also be living reminders of how we must never tolerate violence, cruelty or hated against our Jewish brothers and sister – or against any person for any reason, race, or religion at any life moment from conception to natural death. Recent examples of anti-Semitic violence in Pittsburgh, Jersey City, New York and Poway, California are stark reminders that vigilance must be ongoing for the spirit of evil is very much alive in our world today. Hatred still roams the world beyond the museums that chronicle its past moments. We cannot forget the lessons from history.
Last week, I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture for the first time with Father Martino Choi, one of our archdiocesan priests. Our two-and-a-half-hour visit was not nearly sufficient to view all the displays of this incredible institution of history and triumph. After leaving one section describing the events of the early 20th century, we paused at the exhibition detailing the Harlem Renaissance – that harvest of artistic, poetic, musical, and literary genius that blossomed even as widespread violence was being imposed on people of color throughout this nation. Father Martino commented as we departed that section that he was glad the display ended with the triumph of the artistic genius of that moment in time. He said without that as a closure, it would have been a depressing exit.
Even as museums expose much of the sorrow from the past, they also reveal the resilience of the human spirit in spite of incredible obstacles. The African American heritage museum that afternoon was filled with people from every race and nation. The languages that I heard spoken told the story of humanity at its best.
Now that I am a resident of this remarkable city, I hope to explore more frequently the stories that are captured by our monuments and institutions of heritage preservation. I take heart in knowing about our history but also in being inspired by the indomitable human spirit that arises even in the face of staggering sorrow, injustice and pain. Much of what social media broadcasts concentrates on all that is wrong in our world – and much is wrong; we also need to recapture a sense of how the human heart can and must triumph even in the face of hatred, violence, dishonesty, and sin.