A nation’s material culture channels the dearest held values of its people into tangible from. Likewise, what is preserved and displayed reflects what our current culture intends to pressure on to past events. After seeing a variety of artifacts from the National Museum of American History, and the many presidential portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, there seems to be a question of American militarism and warfare with which we are not able to reconcile fully. Judging solely by the exhibits, the message seems to be that the violence of our foundations, the Revolutionary War and so forth, is a source of pride or at least far enough removed from modern times to be celebrated. Conversely, the wars including and following World War II are portrayed with a diplomatic air; our necessity to fight against global immorality rather than for land or resources. Likewise, this shift in American military policy coincided with changing depictions of our leaders, from stoic commanders to casual “everymen.”
In an effort to conform to this narrative, the layout and presentation of “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War” exhibit guides patrons through each conflict chronologically. As one enters, a solemn drumming invokes a sense of grim duty, rather than victory. The somber mood becomes a bit jilted as one enters the Revolutionary War section, and is greeted with a hanging tax collector, and a brutish redcoat stumbling out of a nearby cottage, drunk and armed. Walk past this display, and several minutemen statues gaze across a digitally simulated battlefield, girded against an entire onslaught of British soldiers. Even the war relics displayed are somewhat imbalanced, with only a regimental vest and gorget in a darkened case representing the British, while George Washington’s uniform stands in its entirety behind a glass case, almost like a religious object. This, coupled with a variety of swords and muskets, seems to celebrate the war, and the victory over the British as righteous. A similar theme continues until the World War II section, where our military prowess is somewhat downplayed and supplemented with artifacts denoting peacefulness, even in war. What is most striking as one enters this section is the wall of Axis leaders, each in the midst of a speech, flanked by soldiers at full attention. Displayed nearby are instruments of war, decorative daggers, marching batons, rifles, and swords, all draped with the banners of their respective fascist governments. As the informational plaque next to these items stated, “the Allies resolved that the war could never end in a truce,” articulating the need, not the desire, for war at this time. Conversely, the exhibit depicts American weaponry in a ceremonial fashion. For instance, one display showed a rifle, barrel towards the ground, topped with a helmet. Nearby, there was a case full of recreational objects, a pipe, a baseball, a barber’s brush. This juxtaposition between the militaristic, fascist forces, and the peaceful, yet duty-bound Americans differs from the atmosphere created by the Revolutionary War exhibit. Because we are more chronologically closer to World War II than the Revolutionary War, we are more reluctant to celebrate our victory, as the gulf of time separates us from our founders.
A similar shift occurs in presidential portraits, over time, the cold, aloof image of our leaders gives way to familiarity and warmth. Many of the older presidents, especially Washington and Jackson, had several portraits, one in uniform, one later on, and all without a smile. Every president before the mid-20th century has the same stony countenance, as if to tell foreign powers that our commander in chief will not yield in any potential conflict, and to tell our citizens that they will not waver in their duty to protect this country. Around the latter half of the 20th century, presidents began to appear more true-to-life than before, striking natural poses, even smiling, rather than simply grimacing in a void as prior presidents had done. As time went on, even the attire of the president changed. Uniforms and formal wear gave way to modern suits, and even more recently, business causal wear. The apex of this development is George W. Bush’s presidential portrait; he sits comfortably fingers clasped, smiling, without a jacket or tie, as though he was painted in the midst of a conversation. The result of this is a more personable image, for both the world, and the American people.