Museums and Displays

One of the problems I have with going to a museum that touts its history collection and suggests that it will teach the visitor something about history is that for the most part the audience will take for granted that the museum will tell “the truth.”1

Often these displays will not actually lie to said visitor, but they will certainly mislead. For example, the USS Constitution Museum2 wanted to give a very, very basic overview of what the age of sail was about, that era of American Naval History (mostly the Barbary Wars) and, of course, the USS Constitution. In part because of not going into that detail and in many ways regardless of the detail the museum promoted glorification of sailing ships, the US Navy and the founding heroes of that body. For example, Stephen Decatur had a little bio, including his exploits on the Intrepid and as captain of the Constitution; William Bainbridge also had a plaque (both men won gold plaques for distinguished service and bravery), but while Decatur’s death was mentioned, what was not mentioned was that Bainbridge hated Decatur, was his second in the duel where he died, and did not intervene when Decatur had things set against him.

Another display talked about the foundation of the original six frigates (Constitution, United States, President, Constellation, Chesapeake, and Congress) and how Joshua Humphrey won the contract to design the fleet. It didn’t mention that Josiah Fox also won the contract, that it was shared between the men and that Fox believed that Humphrey was wrong and therefore changed the design where ever he felt necessary.

The section about how the Philadelphia ran aground in Tripoli Harbor was glossed over, whereas the emphasis was on Bainbridge’s communications out of the prison and to Commodore Preble (who was praised as a hero and for Preble’s boys, without mentioning that he was unpopular and sickly), and, of course, on the daring raid to sink the frigate before the Tripolitans could refloat and rearm her.

I suppose that if someone wanted a passing understanding of that era’s naval history and a generic tale of what happened, then the museum was passable, but a bit small. It just seemed in many ways to be a glorification monument to the United States.

1 Very much the same is true for books, tv documentaries and teachers, but I visited the USS Constitution museum today, which is what made me think of this.

2 Which was decidedly underwhelming.

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