Of all the sights and monuments there are to see in Washington DC, I was particularly excited about the Smithsonian Museum of American History only to find that it was closed for refurbishment until 2008. Fortunately, a small selection of its artifacts were on display at the Air and Space Museum. So, I dragged my friend Ronan along to the small collection of about 150 pieces. Although small, the exhibit was wide-ranging, with pieces as diverse as Abraham Lincoln's hat, an original box of Crayola crayons, the Greensboro luncheon counter, and the laptop used by Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City. Throughout the exhibit there were audible and excited exclamations: 'Oh, look it's...'; 'Wow, do you remember...?; 'I've seen lots of pictures of it, but seeing it for real is completely different.' One woman stood by her daughter explaining the courage of the suffragettes as they looked at a pin commemorating those who had been imprisoned in the campaign for women's right to vote. Another had a good laugh as she and her friend spotted Minnie Pearl's hat, remembering the comedienne's antics. One man was fascinated by the imposing stature of George Washington and the diminutive frame of Andrew Jackson, each evidenced by their respective military coats on display.
For my UK readers all this may make little sense. For Ronan, while admitting there were some interesting items, others seemed to him just pieces of junk. In one sense, I agreed. The exhibit felt like going through the nation's attic, and to an extent the stuff was junk: Archie Bunker's tatty old chair, a pair of old (albeit original) Levi 501's, the stump of a tree riddled with bullets from a Civil War battle. However, it is the junk that defines a people. It is artifacts such as these that connect Americans to each other, and which witness to our collective experience as a people. Whatever our individual feelings may be about the current and the coming Presidents, we all reverence the first one as 'Father of the Country'. We know about his honesty in admitting to chopping down the cherry tree and his courage in crossing the Delaware River. Looking at the desk on which Thomas Jefferson composed the Declaration of Independence, there is hardly an American who cannot recite 'we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' We also know how those words resounded down through the our history on the lips of heroes like Lincoln and King. This little desk is not just a piece of 18th century furniture, but a symbol of what we believe ourselves to be at our best. The script from MGM's The Wizard of Oz and Dorothy's ruby slippers are not just movie memorabilia, but symbols for Americans of what it means to dream and what it means to find home. As such, they reference an experience which, since the film debuted, no American has escaped. All this 'junk' — through a collective history in our schools, but also through our recreation, films, music and television — have given us our national identity.
As Britain struggles with the idea of a national identity it would behove her to remember that she cannot create one out of thin air, and that a national identity once disdained is almost impossible to recover. A real national identity arises from the little things of communal experience that reveal to us not only what we value, but also remind us of what we most should strive for by recalling our founding narrative and principles. I know that I will most likely never see the people at that exhibit again, but also know that I am connected to them through a common story, and that is what a national identity means.