History’s Real Stuff (Sorry, Miss Grundy)





ON the kind of humid summer day that sends visitors to Washington running for cool cover, not even free air-conditioning could lure more than a trickle of tourists into the art museums lining the National Mall.

But 35 miles south at the National Museum of the Marine Corps near Quantico, Va., visitors in a virtual boot camp tested their mettle against drill instructors and their marksmanship on an M-16 laser-rifle range.

Up the Potomac at Mount Vernon, crowds spilled onto a four-acre replica of George Washington’s working farm, while inside the Revolutionary War Theater the rumble of cannons and the cold prick of snow falling overhead lent verisimilitude to the re-enactment of his troops crossing the Delaware River.

And at the International Spy Museum in downtown Washington, visitors with $16 advance tickets snaked out the door as they waited their turn to practice fantasy espionage, complete with assumed identities, pen cameras, shoe phones and the kind of super-spy cars Q might have dreamed up for 007.

Admit it. Learning about history has rarely been so much fun.

Across the country, shiny new history museums are pushing up like poppies on a battlefield, while the war horses struggle to scrape off their mold. Gone are shelves of crusty artifacts, yellowed text panels stuffed with dates and names and the “excitement” of a stale soda cracker behind glass that some historical figure may have sampled. In their place are Hollywood-produced movies, evocative oral histories and special-effect extravaganzas so spectacular that visitors could be forgiven for thinking they had actually lived through that historical moment.

Museum directors and curators increasingly sense opportunity — and profitability — in the low test scores that characterize Americans’ familiarity with their country’s history. ( “What do you call the high school history teacher?” asked Roy Rosenzweig, a professor of history at George Mason University who directs the Center for History and New Media there. “Coach.”)...


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