The Attic of Empire


On History

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


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.

The ribbon cutting was a grand affair, timed to coincide with the nation’s bicentennial celebration. The robotic arm that cut the ribbon was activated by a signal from the Viking 1 spacecraft en route to Mars. President Ford, applauding this bit of high-tech theater, called the museum “a perfect birthday present from the American people to themselves.”

The museum quickly became the most visited attraction on the Mall; it’s now the most popular museum in the world. But in those early days, it seemed to have been built just for me. The moment I squeezed through the glass doors and stood at the sun-blasted edge of “Milestones of Flight,” the crowds melted away. I’d make a beeline for the Apollo 11 Command Module, which was encased in a clam-shell of ballistic plastic, just like the commemorative miniatures in the gift shop, and run my fingers over the scorched heat shield, imagining the astronauts’ fiery reentry.

But most of my go-to exhibits were military machines. I took a special interest in the trophies of war: aircraft that had been delivered to the United States as restitution. I never left the museum without visiting the biplanes of World War I, the Fokker and the Pfalz, with their wire struts and fabric-covered wings; or without shaking a self-righteous fist at the German V-2 rocket. I hated the V-2 as a weapon of Nazi terror, but I had to admire its elegant silhouette and the perfection of its paint job, a kind of abstract checkerboard in gleaming black and white.

The war trophies looked brand new, even the V-1 “buzz bomb,” which dangled from the ceiling trusses like one of the scale models that patrolled the airspace of my own bedroom.

I could almost imagine that winning a war was simply a matter of confiscating the enemy’s favorite toys.

* * *

The Air and Space Museum was conceived as a hanger on a monumental scale, an “attic” for famous and noteworthy aircraft. But by the late 1980s, the museum, under the leadership of a new director, began to explore a fresh line of inquiry: didn’t these masterpieces of technology have something to teach us about our nation and its place in the world?

The fiftieth anniversary of the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima was the perfect opportunity to unveil the newly restored Enola Gay, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress that delivered Little Boy on August 6, 1945. With the Enola Gay as a hulking backdrop, visitors to the museum would be asked to reflect on the facts of the case, to treat the Enola Gay, and, by extension, the atomic bomb, in the cold light of history. Photographs would display the consequences of the bomb side by side with its brilliant delivery system.

As a child, I’d seen full-scale replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man, the Nagasaki bomb, in the old Arts and Industries Building. I was terrified of nuclear war—Washington was ground zero!—and the bombs’ cartoonish shapes had given me nightmares. Now that the Soviet Union had fallen apart and the threat of mutually assured destruction was finally starting to fade, it seemed more important than ever to remember the horrors of Hiroshima.

I liked the sound of the proposed exhibit, but Air Force veterans of World War II—and the politically powerful veterans’ groups they belonged to—were outraged by its “neutral” character. Where was the pride? What did the victims of Hiroshima have to do with displaying an airplane? Instead of tarring our noble airmen with a war crime, shouldn’t we be down on our knees thanking them for the countless lives they saved by ending the war so quickly?

The controversy escalated to Congress, which supplies about two-thirds of the funding for the Smithsonian. Various members accused the Air and Space Museum of political correctness, intellectual dishonesty, revisionist history—of foisting a guilt trip on the American people. The Senate passed a nonbinding resolution against the exhibit, and the museum’s innovative director was forced to resign. A month later, a vastly simplified exhibit opened without much fanfare. A single succinct sentence described the Enola Gay’s role in the Hiroshima bombing:

On August 6, 1945, this Marin-built B-29-45-MO dropped the first atomic weapon used in combat on Hiroshima, Japan.

* * *

In the years that followed, I needed my museums more than ever, but in new ways: as a reminder of happier times, as a refuge from the pettiness and ego I encountered in my daily grind, and above all as source material for my stories. My imagination had always been drawn to obsessives: people who collected, categorized, curated, and fetishized. Thanks to family and friends who worked behind the scenes, I’d toured preservation labs, storage vaults, and stripped galleries. From an early age, I’d seen just how much artifice was involved in the illusion of authority.

Until the Enola Gay, I hadn’t fully absorbed the role of politics in museum-making. History was written by the victorious; museums were simply shrines to that history. It was hard to blame the Air Force veterans for feeling that their shrine was being desecrated. They saw the quashing of the exhibit as a patriotic victory, but I experienced it as the triumph of vanity over introspection.

As I was writing my novel Marshlands, which explores, among other themes, how an empire consecrates its military history, I drew on the shame I felt after the Enola Gay controversy. I made my characters feel what it is to have an important exhibit ruined by political exigency, to lose a museum that felt like theirs, and with it, a crucial claim to their own past. In Marshlands, the loss is particularly traumatic, since the civilization commemorated in the exhibit has vanished, a casualty of one of the empire’s foreign adventures. The woman organizing it is a refugee of that great disaster and comes to understand too late that there’s no room in her museum for a nation’s guilty conscience.

I wish the Air and Space Museum still retained its magic for me. These days, trudging up the marble steps and passing through the security gauntlet, which was tightened after those gleaming 767s decimated the twin towers, I feel like I’m entering an airport rather than a museum, like I’m finally, after all these years, leaving my own city.

Matthew Olshan is the author of Marshlands, a novel, out today, and several books for young readers, including Finn, The Flown Sky, and The Mighty Lalouche. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.