Historical displays and monuments are efficient ways of conveying a powerful message with using a minimal amount of words. Two primary examples of this occur in the National Museum of American History. Here, the presidents and first ladies are examined in separate areas, which yield exceedingly dichotomous messages. Beyond this, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial contains impactful rhetoric, which cannot go without notice. Regardless of the form or topic, these displays convey interesting messages through rhetoric.
One prominent exhibit in the National Museum of American History is the “American Presidency” exhibit, which attempts to portray the greatness of presidents. The presentation depicts presidents as one might expect: royally and with pride. As soon as a person walks into the display, he or she is greeted with a commentary about the greatness of the presidents, with a royal blue background, adorned with stars, evoking patriotic emotions. Surrounding this room and the attached rooms are showcases of badges, medals and ribbons won by the presidents, illustrating their success. Beyond this, there are historic political advertisements from the radio being played softly in the background. Although many people may not even realize the radio clips, they can subconsciously influence the visitors’ perception of the display. Lastly, the rhetoric of the exhibit room is amplified by elegant architecture. Although plain walls separate various rooms within the exhibit, at the top of the walls are elegant cornices, which yield a sophisticated sense. Other than this cornice, various pillars outline a central area, once again making the room feel more official and historically important, although the pillars do not support any structural weight. All of these features serve to convince the visitor that the presidents are historically paramount.
This exhibit differs greatly than the one titled “First Ladies.” In this arrangement, instead of presenting medals and badges, dresses and fine china are featured. Not only are the dresses the central piece for each individual display of the first lady, but more information is typically given about the dress than the first lady herself, giving off the impression that the woman herself was unimportant. Lining the singular room are small plaques simply supplying basic statistics about the woman, such as when she was born, when she died, and when she became first lady. Additionally, in contrast with the presidential exhibit, elegant music plays in the background, yielding the effect of a more superficial, elegant display, with little content. Enforcing this superficiality is a mirror on a wall in the display. This could symbolize vanity, and how the display is more about appearance of the first ladies, and not their accomplishments. Overall, the message told by this rhetoric is that the first ladies are not historically important, as they serve mainly as a role model; they are not expected to do anything other than be a suitable wife for the president.
Lastly, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial hearkens back to the glorifying rhetoric of the presidential exhibit. This memorial shows a large rock, perhaps a mountain, with a slice cut out from the middle of it. This portion is brought forward, out from the large rock, with King etched into the rock. Inscribed on the side is the quote “out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” This illustrates the physical state of the memorial, as his rock (the stone of hope) is cut out from the larger rock (the mountain of despair). Furthermore, it is aligned with the historical context, as the mountain of despair can be construed as the pervasive racism in the 1950’s. Notably, King is also wearing a suit, and holding a scroll, showing his official nature and great esteem. Often times, as a reverend, King would wear a suit for his sermons. Along these lines, a scroll could be symbolic of Biblical texts, which highlights his religious background, enhancing King’s good character and credibility. Additionally, on each side of the main statue are two walls that contain quotations from other historical figures about racism and overcoming societal obstacles. In providing these quotes, the audience can be exposed to various opinions and views on the issue.
In conclusion, these displays show the complexity of rhetoric used by historical exhibits and monuments. While the presidential display and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial glorify their topic, the exhibit on first ladies can be seen as demeaning and vain. Although the motives and messages behind the displays differ, the narration of the message is effective in each case.