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The Attic of Empire

February 4, 2014 | by

Remembering the National Air and Space Museum and the nation’s guilty conscience.

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Photo: Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons

People think of Washington, D.C., as a transitory place—a city of four-year leases, tourists, and revolving doors—an impression that dates back to the earliest days of the federal capital. The city fathers, desperate to counter the District’s reputation as a provincial backwater, fought back by building monuments. Think of it as overcompensation, the attempt to create an illusion of age-old power. Why else plant a fifty-story Egyptian obelisk in the center of town?

For those of us who were born and raised in Washington, there was both a pride in living near the nation’s symbolic center and a nagging feeling that the city didn’t really belong to us. A drive down Massachusetts Avenue, past the mansions of Embassy Row, was a reminder of how much of the town was actually built on foreign soil. Even the parts that were supposed to be ours were somewhat foreign, in the sense that they belonged to the whole country. Our Fourth of July fairground was the National Mall; the church in which I sang was the National Cathedral; and our local museums were the Smithsonian Institution—the “Nation’s Attic.”

The museums were the best part of living in Washington. My friends and I took a proprietary interest in them. This might not be our town, exactly, but these were our museums, none more so than the National Air and Space Museum, which opened when I was nine years old and obsessed with outer space. Read More »

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