Every place has a history. This turnpike, that canal, the house over in Shaw where Paul Robeson studied voice. Even Tysons Corner was somebody’s farm, once upon a time, and in the 1860s that somebody ended up with a Union Army stockade where 30 acres of his crops had been not too long before. History is all around us.
Especially here in D.C. Indeed, in a city that is itself a living memorial, not to mention capital of the nation its namesake helped establish, it’s easy to get blasé, to take that sort of uppercase-H history for granted. Ford’s Theatre? Too many tourists. Clara Barton’s headquarters, up at Glen Echo? It’s so faaaaaaar — maybe when the weather’s better.
Sometimes, though, life conspires to make you stop and dwell for a minute on the implications of a place. The weight of a thing.
At the National Gallery of Art — just a couple of blocks from us here at Woolly Mammoth, on the site of the train terminal where President Garfield was shot in the summer of 1881 — you can spend time nose-to-nose with this Rembrandt self-portrait:
Self-Portrait - Rembrandt van Rijn - Google Arts & Culture
After learning the fundamentals of drawing and painting in his native Leiden, Rembrandt van Rijn went to Amsterdam in…
Forget for a moment its value as a towering work of art. Think about the physical realities of this object that hangs here, inches from you, unmediated. This canvas, these oils: Rembrandt held them, manipulated them, left his fingerprints on them, not to mention a bit of his soul. One day he put down his brush and his palette and declared this work complete. And now here it is, its creator meeting your gaze across four centuries.
History is all around us.
Now flash back three years to the Power and Pathos exhibition of Hellenistic bronzes at that same gallery, and consider that those objects, those breathtaking faces and bodies, had come to us across two millennia and more. A human hand like mine froze these curls into place on this bronze forehead, two centuries before the man called Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth — and here are those same curls, tempting me to brush them with a fingertip. History, in those rooms especially, was all around us.
Across the Mall from the National Gallery, a case holds a volcanic rock. This dull, wondrous thing is here, where we can in fact reach into its display case and touch it, because madmen buckled themselves into a tin can with a pile of explosives strapped to it and hurled themselves across airless space to our planet’s pale child — and then returned with this object, formed between 3 billion and 5 billion years ago, for us to lay our hands on. History, both unfathomably ancient and thrillingly modern, is right here with us.
Attention must be paid, as the wise woman says, when objects as singular as these present themselves — though like Willy Loman our staggering everyday treasures too often go unremarked.
All of this is on my mind today because we’re opening Underground Railroad Game at Woolly this week, and as part of the talking and thinking we’ve been doing about it, we thought we’d poke around this splendid living history museum we’re based in, to see what it has to say and show to us about the topic at hand.
(No, we’re not going to explain the Underground Railroad in this post. Here’s a refresher, though.)
D.C.’s connections to the Railroad, though: Turns out there’s a lot. I mean, a lot a lot. Way more than we’ll be able to share with you during the run of this one show.
But maybe start here:
Silk lace and linen shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria
Harriet Tubman escaped the bonds of slavery as a young woman in the early 1800s. She returned to the South many times…
In another display, in another museum here in Washington’s city, this extraordinary object points us to one of the great disgraces in the history of this nation — and connects us, with an unusual intimacy, to one of the people who fought most doggedly to push that disgrace out of her present and into the past.
Stop and let this object speak — this delicate, intricate piece of work that belonged to Harriet Tubman. Cook, wife, nurse, spy, born into chattel slavery but never entirely bound by it. Crosser of lines. Emancipator of hundreds, including her own parents.
Harriet Tubman held this silk lace shawl. She wore it. It was a gift to her from the most powerful woman in the world — a queen-empress whose experience of life couldn’t have been more different from that of an enslaved woman, who changed that world as surely as Tubman did, and who admired the work of this other woman from what might as well have been lunar orbit.
This shawl, Harriet Tubman’s shawl, which touched her shoulders and her hands and probably her face: what a miracle to be able to share light and space and air with it. History is all around us.
And not just because we can turn a corner to see it — touch it, sometimes, if we’re lucky.
If this particular object tells us anything, it’s that we’re doing so much more than merely living in history, watching it unfold. With every choice, every decision, every vote and every rally, every day seized — or not — we’re making it.
History is (all around) us.