Those who forget the past

A wise man once said, “People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.” In this light, consider the recent Las Vegas appearance of Lonnie Bunch.

Bunch is the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture’s founding director. The Smithsonian and the National Mall are treasures where Americans can learn about history for free. Much of it is celebratory. Bunch’s museum won’t be, and can’t be, though it will “help all of America wrestle with its past,” he says. That requires collaboration and an understanding of issues such as how race has shaped the globe.

Bunch enthusiastically and thoughtfully discusses the challenges of creating a national museum. However big it is, it can’t explain everything. Designing it and its exhibits means navigating among diverse audiences, such as those who advocate treating African-American history as a saga of victimization and those who want the entire story to be positive. He must raise money for it, with help from a bipartisan board that includes Oprah Winfrey and Laura Bush.

But some oppose the museum because “dealing with difficult moments is not something that Americans do well,” Bunch says. One of the few major Washington, D.C., museums that crosses that line is the Holocaust Museum. But as Bunch says, “There, the bad guys aren’t Americans.” A museum on African-American history can’t help but portray a segment of American society as horrifically wrong.

Which brings us to Nevada’s museums and historic sites, and Las Vegas in particular. Vandals are a risk; recently, graffiti “artists” attacked 1,000-year-old rock art in Red Rock Canyon and arsonists damaged the Mormon Fort.

State officials are a risk. Gov. Jim Gibbons tried to gut state parks and museums, and if his successor, Brian Sandoval, keeps showing signs of being a clone, more trouble looms for these priceless pieces of our past.

We are a risk ourselves, and I don’t mean from imploding old hotels. Take the Las Vegas City Council, which to its shame approved demolishing the home of local founding father Pop Squires to make room for an office building because we really need more office space and, besides—sarcasm alert!—so much of Las Vegas’ early history is still standing.

Yet the same city council has supported the Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, better known as the Mob Museum, set to open in the fall of 2011 in the old downtown federal building, which the federal government wanted to raze and the city saved. (The Strip’s privately run Las Vegas Mob Experience will have artifacts from family members of Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky and Tony Spilotro.)

Mayor Oscar Goodman, the guiding force behind the Mob Museum, said some silly things about the lack of a mob when he was a defense attorney. So critics have suggested this museum will celebrate organized crime. One of them called me (I was one of the museum’s researchers), and I replied, “Yes, the same way the Holocaust Museum celebrates the Holocaust.” Others have said Las Vegas shouldn’t be reminding the world that our founding fathers had rap sheets.

Bunch said one supporter of his museum’s approach has been Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, as conservative a Republican as you’ll find anywhere. Brownback asked, “Are we Americans brave enough to face our past?” A wonderful question, and Las Vegans should ask the same whenever our history becomes a source of controversy.

We also should ask whether we’re brave enough to make sure our past survives. Budget cuts threaten many cultural institutions, which are great bargains, offering relatively inexpensive information and entertainment. Whether Republican or Democrat, you certainly want Nevadans to pull together. How do you pull them together if they cannot know what makes them Nevadans in the first place?

Bunch concluded by saying, “The job of this museum is to make America better. Our ancestors demand nothing less.” Their descendants should feel similarly, on the National Mall and here.

By the way, the speaker quoted at the beginning? Edmund Burke, the father of conservatism. He knew that conservatism included conserving our history.

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