Thursday, January 03, 2008

The museum on the sixth floor, and history for the public

(Here's wishing you all a very happy 2008)

Just before I moved to Dallas, a friend told me to let him know when I “visited the spot where JFK died”. That visit was long overdue, but we finally decided to go downtown and take a look at The sixth floor museum, coincidentally timed a day before Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto was assassinated.

Not unsurprisingly, the museum turned out to be a treat for a history buff. The museum, like the name suggests, is on the sixth floor of the infamous Dealey Plaza, from where the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald shot the most charismatic world leader of that time. I didn’t expect too much as I entered the museum, and probably would have been content to look at a few black and white JFK photographs, a description around the window where Oswald stood, and then step into the souvenir shop. But it takes American ingenuity to make sure that you feel the visit is worth the ten odd dollars you pay for entrance, and come out having learnt something.

As you enter, you pick up one of those audio-tour players which guide you through the exhibits on the third floor. Initially, I used to feel that the audio-players dictated every moment of these kinds of tours, sometimes injecting urgency when you want to just amble through exhibits. But that, of course, was before I discovered the “pause” button. Since then I’ve been a convert to these devices, which can (when made well) make a visit to a museum that much more informative and enriching. The museum itself had an excellent collection of documents and pictures from John. F. Kennedy’s life, up to his assassination, and tried to present a balanced view of his legacy. This ranged from becoming the youngest elected president of the United States, to his Catholic religion in a strongly protestant nation, the Cuban missile crisis, his Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco, and the beginnings of the Vietnam war. But the highlight of the museum, of course, was his assassination itself. This is nicely chronicled right from his arrival in Dallas, and snippets of newspaper ads that appeared in some Dallas newspapers, that said JFK was a traitor, or a communist or a servant of the Pope, and suchlike. These little snippets allow the visitor to step back into that time. The museum then goes on into details of the assassination, through the famous Zapruder film which caught the assassination on tape, and to the aftermath of JFK’s death. Oswald morphs from being just a name to a real character, and we can allow ourselves to enter the mind of the former Marine who defects to the Soviet Union and then comes back to the States retaining strong communist sympathies. There are photographs of Jack Ruby, who shot Oswald. And then there is the investigation of the assassination itself, and the many conspiracy theories around it, which the museum does not completely ignore, but tries to address using the facts and evidence at hand.

The “magic bullet” that killed Kennedy of course makes an interesting tale. This bullet supposedly not only went through Kennedy’s neck, but then continued to go through the hand of the Texas Governer John Connally, and then go on to embed itself in Connelly’s thigh. This bullet was not found on Governer Connally stretcher, but on another one in the hospital, and looked almost intact (after all this traveling). The Warren commission investigation the assassination claimed that the evidence that this was the bullet was “persuasive”, but thousands of Americans probably said what I did. “Aw, come on, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

I love the conspiracy theories. I was pleasantly satisfied to see some diehard conspiracy theorists standing outside the museum, with their pamphlets and booklets and posters of “evidence”. Only in America, and all part of the great things about this country. Sidetrack: to me the best conspiracy theory was picturized in Oliver Stone’s often historically inaccurate but thoroughly entertaining film, JFK.

Which brings me to some tangential thoughts that came to mind as we left the museum. There are no shortages of memorials (“samadhis”) of Indian political leaders in India. Some of these leaders died natural deaths, while others (like Mahatma Gandhi, or Indira or Rajiv Gandhi) died at the hands of assassins, not unlike Oswald. All of these leaders have monuments erected in their memory. And when you visit them, you encounter somewhat sterile, architectural monstrosities (or delights, perhaps, if you like that kind of architecture) in the midst of some pretty gardens. The events leading to and following their deaths aren’t depicted. There is little (or nothing) about the legacy of these leaders, or the incidents and controversies behind their lives and deaths. The identities, and more importantly the lives of their assassins remain outside the purviews of these monuments. And the visitor comes and leaves without having learnt anything about the dead or those who caused their deaths. There is no feeling that a sense of history or legacy ever existed. Is it too much to expect that the legacies (however flawed) of the leaders who shaped the modern destiny of a nation with a sixth of the world’s population, are remembered, at least at the monuments which mark their death?


anantha said...

Sidetrack: to me the best conspiracy theory was picturized in Oliver Stone’s often historically inaccurate but thoroughly entertaining film, JFK.

Seinfeld had a awesome parody of the trial scene from the movie. The common thread was that Wayne Newton (aka Newman) played the same role in the Seinfeld "re-creation" as he did in Oliver Stone's movie.

gawker said...

Sunil, I found your last point very intriguing. I had not thought about it, but yes, monuments for Indian leaders tend to be very historically uninformative. I think one of the reasons behind this might be the instant deification that occurs after the death of a leader. And once someone is deified, who are we to rummage into his or her human persona? And once someone is deified, no one wants to talk about the person's flaws, only about his / her mythic greatness. Plus, there's the very Indian attribute of not speaking ill of the dead, as well as the reverence we Indians have for monuments.

Sunil said...

Anantha.......that is one amongst Seinfeld's many unforgettable classic episodes, even better than the soup Nazi. Cramer, as always, rules.'re so right about the deification, except that the deification occurs even while the leader is alive. No need to wait for him/her to die. It is unfortunate though that it is almost impossible to study the legacy of a leader, with the accomplishments as well as the flaws.

Anonymous said...

On the poverty of historical detail that afflicts Indian museums, it is interesting to contrast that with some other public places that are more religious, like temples. I've always found temples stuffed with history and overwhelming amount of detail. I suppose in some way it speaks of a society's priorities - not just that myths have more mindshare than factual history but also an individual is not that important in the scheme of things. I am, of course, just speculating. Afterall, it maybe that museums in India are just mediocre and that's that.

Sunil said...

selva.....actually, I disagree with you here. I think there is a poverty of historical detail in India, period. This includes temples. You can visit a bunch of ancient temples (some years back, I went around looking at the architecture of a bunch of temples built between the 7th - 10th century by the Pallava dynasty around Chennai. There was just about no historical record around the temples on display....who made them, why, when etc). If you've found temples stuffed with probably is only a few "popular" temples flush with money.

Anyway.....most museums in India are rather shoddily kept. There isn't a culture of visiting museums and suchlike in India, and there's no way to go about building that culture. Unfortunate, that.

Jam said...

Join the club of the historically inclined but always wondered why we as Indians have scant respect for history. All my visits to tombs and forts have ended up being insanely frustrating because for all the locals who stay in the vicinity, the fort is nothing more than a source of tourist revenue for them. If you aren't buying their postcards or drinking the lemonade they are selling, you are a second-grade citizen who is just wasting their time.

However, I cannot blame them too much considering that this probably is the only livelihood they have and probably the only means to feed an ever-growing family.

All said and done, I do sincerely believe that we as Indians do not respect ourselves or our history as much as people from other countries do. All we can do is to support hollow politicians who conveniently rejig our history every five years during election season.


pg said...

hi I cannot blame them too much considering that this probably is the only livelihood they have and probably the only means to feed an ever-growing family.

Sunil said...

jam.....respect or knowledge of history in India is maddeningly low. You're surrounded by history, and remain oblivious to it. But, like PG, I don't blame people who view monuments purely as sources of livelihood. And the less said about hollow politicians, the better.

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