National Mall: Wonder of Democracy

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.

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