I arrived at the National Museum of American History just in time for a guided tour. The group was small – only me – but the docent/tour guide was still more than happy to take me on the full tour.
It started with a walk through the first floor exhibit on the history of transportation in the US with early trains and automobiles on display.
My tour guide mentioned that, at any one time, there is way more stuff in storage at the Smithsonian than there is on display.
One thing that’s always out, however, is Julia Child’s kitchen, rebuilt piece by piece. It reminded me of the end of the movie Julie and Julia, where a scene in this historic kitchen fades into today’s museum display.
One standout section for me was the display on the history of war in the United States. It was more realistic than idealistic, providing insight into the enormous human toll war has had on our country.
I was also profoundly moved by a display of items left at the Vietnam Memorial including notes from loved ones and friends. I looked at the dates of the “boys” that died. Some of them were born about the same time as my father. I thought about all the friends, fathers, and uncles that those in my generations never grew up knowing.
A section of the lunch counter from the Greensboro sit-in during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s was on display, somewhat unceremoniously, in a clear space between larger exhibits. If I hadn’t known it was a display, I might have just thought it was a closed (and very dated) snack stand.
When I saw the placard and description, I stood there a long time, trying to imagine how it would have been to sit there in protest years ago.
It’s easy to idealize the moral stands of the past; with the benefit of reflection and history, most would agree the Greensboro sit-in was necessary. However, in the moment, with hostile people around clamoring for “peace and order” and to “stop trespassing,” it would have been easy to flinch or doubt oneself.
History doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s made up of the mundane things of life, uncertainties and all. I stared at the lunch counter and marveled in its reality. It was gathering place with ugly pastel-colored seats. A place where people sat down to eat and drink coffee. A place where people sat down to protest a kind of oppression I will never know.
With the voices of so many marginalized populations still asking for a place at the table to speak, it doesn’t feel like it was all that long ago.