So last week, as my group prepared to spend some time touring the Smithsonians, I had to take a break. The thought of jostling crowds yet again at the Air and Space, Natural History, or American History Museums was too difficult to bear. All worthy, and in fact world class, institutions, but I just didn't have the stomach to wade through the hordes. So, like any good rodent, I decided to seek safety in an underground lair.
When I'm looking to experience a quiet moment on the Mall, I head over to the Sackler Gallery of Asian Art or the National Museum of African Art. I'll be the first to admit that while I can appreciate Asian and African Art, the real draw is the peaceful sense of solitude, coupled with the sangfroid of knowing that just thirty feet over my head is tens of thousands of desperate tourists, grimly sucking the most from their experience.
But when I was wandering through last week, enjoying Artful Animals, a delightful discussion of the use (and occasional absence) of various animals in African artwork, I stumbled into a stunning exhibit I had frankly never even heard of: Women and Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America. Now as I'm being frank, I should explain that my personal Catholicism has lapsed so subtly and thoroughly that I no longer feel comfortable identifying myself as such. Outside of chuckling at Blues Brothers and nodding politely at the sisters who live down the street from me, Nuns and other Catholic religious orders have little impact in my life.
So why the fascination with this exhibit? Perhaps because nuns are intertwined into our collective zeitgeist, yet relatively unexamined. What do we really know about them? They are both familiar, and yet foreign. Nuns have witnessed, and participated in, many of the most critical events in American History, but their story is rarely told, and certainly not in a comprehensive way like this exhibit does.
Fundamentally for me, the question that percolates through my mind as I tour Women and Spirit is "who would do this?" And why? An advertisement for the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Aberdeen, South Dakota read:
We offer you no salary; no recompense; no holidays; no pensions; but much hard work; a poor dwelling; few consolations; many disappointments; frequent sickness; a violent or lonely death.
And yet they came, and helped shape American life, teaching millions and comforting thousands. The exhibit doesn't stray from showing the full picture of Catholic Sisters in their three centuries in America. Class distinctions common in Europe were brought to the New World, where they often clashed with egalitarian American ideals. And a 1844 Bill of Sale for a slave to the Sisters of Loretto shows that even the most moral can have blind spots.
Unfortunately, I've given you little time to see this exhibit. It's closes this Sunday, April 25th before moving on to Cleveland, New York, and points west. But if you're on the Mall, go visit the S. Dillon Ripley Center (entrance just to the right of the Castle as you look at it from the Mall). Trust me, the Hope Diamond will still be there the next time you come.