National Mall: Wonder of Democracy

Democracy is one of the great wonders of America. It is more than our form of government; it is synonymous with our national identity and our national character.

Although we associate democracy with ideas like "freedom" and "equality," there is one physical place in America where our values, ideals, and traditions are on display everyday for the whole world to see - the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

When I stand at the entrance to the National Museum of American History, I am in the center of the National Mall and I can see most of the major landmarks of this amazing public space that stretches out over two miles. To the east, there is the gleaming dome of U.S. Capitol and the superb museums of the Smithsonian Institution. The National Gallery of Art and the U.S. Botanic Gardens, with their unsurpassed collections of art and horticulture, occupy prominent sites along the Mall. Within a short walk, a visitor can see a stunning variety of styles from the Smithsonian Castle by James Renwick Jr. to the National Gallery's East Building by I.M. Pei.

Turning to view the western half of the Mall, I have a clear view of the monumental landscape that honors great leaders of our nation - Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt - as well as the men and women who have served in the major wars of our history. The monuments not only honor the people who have shaped our history but also reflect the creativity of artists, architects, and sculptors. From the classical designs of Henry Bacon (Lincoln Memorial) and John Russell Pope (Jefferson Memorial) to the powerfully abstract form of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Maya Lin, the Mall offers visitors a three-dimensional lesson in architectural history.

When I read about how the Mall developed, I realize that the design of the Mall itself represents a major chapter in the history of urban planning in America. Although Pierre L'Enfant's original plan for Washington included a broad open area from the Capitol to the Potomac River, the place we call the National Mall evolved slowly through the 19th century when the major projects included the Capitol, the first buildings of the Smithsonian, and Victorian period landscaping.

After the dedication of the Washington Monument (1888) Americans began to appreciate that the United States was emerging as a world power and that our national capital needed to reflect that power in its buildings, parks, and public places.

The single biggest influence on the design of the Mall was the 1902 plan of the Senate Park Commission, commonly known as the McMillan Commission for its chairman, Sen. James McMillan of Michigan. This plan provided ideas and guidelines that have shaped the National Mall over the past century. Inspired by the wildly popular Colombian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, the McMillan plan recommended a broad green park flanked by trees and classical buildings. The plan suggested adding new land to the west of the Washington Monument terminating in a monument to Lincoln. Although some elements of the Mall have changed in recent years, the central theme of a formal open space that preserved the great vistas from the Capitol to the Potomac and beyond has been preserved.

Every few years, new projects on the National Mall generate considerable and often passionate debate. Visitors to the enormously popular Vietnam Veteran's Memorial (1982), for example, are surprised to learn that Maya Lin's design for this site was the subject of bitter controversy among several veterans' groups and some architects who wanted a more traditional sculpture.

Advocates for historic preservation resisted the decision to locate the World War II Memorial at the heart of the west Mall out of concern that it would intrude on the view between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Years after the dedication of this memorial in 2004, I still hear spirited arguments on both sides along with fresh proposals to limit new construction on the Mall or to expand the Mall to allow for a new generation of historic and patriotic tributes.

The monuments, memorial, and museums along the National Mall serve as our public memory and our collective patrimony. What truly animates the Mall, however, and makes it a wonderful symbol of democracy are the different ways people - famous and ordinary - have used the Mall as a setting to make history. Marian Anderson's Easter Sunday concert in 1939; the peace marches of the 1960s; and the farmer's tractor protest of 1979 are just a few of the memorable events that have occurred here.

The most legendary demonstration of any type in American history was the August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. With the Lincoln Memorial in the background, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed more than 250,000 people with his resounding "I Have a Dream" speech that defined the American civil rights movement.

With all its remarkable history, impressive architecture, and natural beauty, the National Mall remains a place for people. Whether it is the Cherry Blossom Festival, the Smithsonian Folk Festival, the National Book Festival, or any of the scores of cultural celebrations that occur year-round, the Mall is where people gather to enjoy themselves. Amidst the formal public spaces are ball fields and volleyball nets. At any time of the year, I see people jogging, biking, walking, and picnicking. The Mall is America's front porch - open, accessible, and free - a worthy wonder of a democratic society.

Brent D. Glass is the director of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.