Romancing the Histories of the National Mall

This semester, my role in Public Projects has allowed me to work on the Histories of the National Mall project in several ways. Across this period I’ve been involved researching, editing, and posting content on the site, as well as scheduling and posting relevant items to the project’s social media outlets. I’ve also contributed content based on my area of interest (Deaf President Now). These processes have encouraged me to reflect on the nature of public history projects and the way in which our questions can drive us to explore new subjects of interest.

My question started out simply enough. In the midst of scheduling relevant and interesting items for the month of February, Valentines’ Day presented a challenge. The Histories of the National Mall site has over 500 items, including people, events, explorations, images, documents, videos, audio files and scavenger hunts. I generally enjoy finding just the right item to share via Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Paddles the Beaver for April Fool’s Day, Senator Pepper playing baseball with Congressional pages for the opening day of Major League Baseball, or the Original Cherry Trees for the first day of the Cherry Blossom festival were fun to put together. But for a holiday commonly associated with candy hearts and romance, there were no Mall items that made immediate sense.

Down the research rabbit hole I went, armed with a question; when and how was the Mall a place of romance? Researching this question took me in a number of different directions. I learned that today, the National Mall is frequently a destination wedding site. Like other public parks, people are drawn to the landscape and monuments when they contemplate the exchange of their wedding vows. This led me to question the emergence of the practice and to consider historical examples of weddings on and around the Mall. As a result of all this digging, three new items were added to the site; The Wedding, White House Weddings, and Mall Weddings.

One of my favorite aspects of the Mall site is the way that hidden, overlooked, and missing items are made visible. It is a good reminder of the way in which the city is a palimpsest – it is inscribed with ideas that are sometimes erased and reinscribed with new meaning. In a space that feels timeless and grounded by monuments and other structures, it is fascinating to surface new historical layers at the National Mall.

My questions about a history of romance on the Mall resulted in three very different examples of how the space was used for weddings; it has served as public place for the exchange of vows since 1976, as an elegant and, largely private, space for presidents and their families to hold ceremonies, and as a site of large-scale protest regarding the treatment of same-sex couples. In asking this question, many more arise. What can these examples tell us about changing notions about marriage? What do they suggest about the meaning of marriage ceremonies? By focusing on weddings, what other examples of romance have been ignored?

Perhaps the best part of working on this project has been the way that questions like these are encouraged. The wide variety of items and item types demonstrates the way in which Mall has been (and continues to be) interrogated from many angles. And as this experience showed, there are further stories, events, and people to be explored. We just have to ask questions.

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