Opinion: A <em>boring</em> Women’s History Museum in D.C.? Spare us

“Rosie the Riveter”
“Rosie the Riveter” was introduced as a symbol of patriotic women joining the workforce during World War II.
(Associated Press)

Oh no, not Rosie the Riveter again!

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has cleared for a floor vote a bill that would set up a commission that would be the first step in building a National Women’s History Museum near the National Mall. The one good thing to be said about this project, which has been knocking around lobbying circles since the 1990s, is that its $400 million estimated price tag would be covered by private donations — we hope.

The problem isn’t just that the National Mall, a welcome swath of open green grass in the heart of official Washington, is already cluttered with at least a dozen different museums plus an ever-increasing number of monuments and memorials. It’s that the Women’s History Museum is already slated to become yet another dull and didactic run-through of the potted history that has accompanied a zillion all-too-familiar narratives of women’s “progress.” It’s going to be the kind of place to which visiting career women will dutifully drag their daughters (“Mom, can we pleeeeze go to Forever 21 now?”) and through which Girl Scout troops will be shepherded as they traipse along the Mall from the Washington Monument to the Capitol.

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Visit the exhibit pages on the National Women’s History Museums already elaborate website and you’ll see what I mean. Here they all are, like boxes on a checklist: Rosie the Riveter, Sojourner Truth, Clara Barton, suffragettes, immigrants, Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt, Equal Rights Amendment demonstrators — yawn. A panel of outside women scholars recently parted ways with the museum, citing historical inaccuracies in one of the exhibits. But perhaps they were just bored silly.

The National Women’s History Museum is one of the latest ventures in what New York Times critic Edward Rothstein has called “identity museums.” An identity museum is a museum whose purpose isn’t to show off art or artifacts but “to affirm a particular group’s claims, outline its accomplishments, boost its pride and proclaim, ‘We must tell our own story!’ ” Rothstein wrote in 2010. The classic example is the National Museum of the American Indian, added to the National Mall in 2004. As Rothstein describes it, the Museum of the American Indian “jettisons Western scholarship and tells its own story, leading one tribe to solemnly describe its earliest historical milestone: ‘Birds teach people to call for rain.’ ”

Rothstein added: “Through a gauze of romance, that museum portrays an impossibly peace-loving, harmonious, homogeneous, pastoral world that preceded the invasion of white people — a vision with far less detail and insight than the old natural history museums once provided.”

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Indeed, the Museum of the American Indian’s main appeal these days is its highly rated cafeteria and its gift shop featuring exquisitely made pottery and jewelry by contemporary Native Americans.

Following hard on the heels of the Museum of the American Indian has been the National Museum of African American History and Culture, slated to open in 2015, and also on the Mall as a branch of the Smithsonian. Yet another group, Latinos, has been lobbying for an identity museum of its own: the National Museum of the American Latino, another self-celebratory venture that is supposed to “highlight and preserve this great heritage for the benefit of all Americans … throughout the nation.”

It should be noted that both America and its capital city are already well stocked with women’s museums, ranging from the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington to the Women of the West Museum, now part of the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. We scarcely need another one, especially if it’s going to be — not Rosie the Riveter again!  


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Charlotte Allen writes frequently about feminism, politics and religion. Follow her on Twitter @MeanCharlotte.



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