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Last Updated: Friday, 16 May, 2003, 06:28 GMT 07:28 UK
Washington looks at its own history

By Steve Schifferes
BBC News Online, Washington

Bygone years: the first traffic warden in DC, 1920
Bygone years: the first traffic warden in DC, 1920
Despite its status as the nation's capital, Washington DC has never had a museum devoted to its own history - until now.

The new City Museum, which opens on Friday, is located in the historic Carnegie Library building, in the now-booming Downtown district.

The museum adjoins the new Convention Centre, and it is hoped it will serve as a gateway to the Mall museums and Federal government buildings that have been the main tourist attractions so far.

The museum's chief executive, Barbara Franco, told BBC News Online that she wanted to show the millions of visitors to Washington - and the people who live here - the vibrancy and diversity of the neighbourhoods that make up the city.

Ms Franco said that one of her models in designing the exhibits was the Museum of London, whose motto is "real people live here".

Segregated city

The history of Washington is intimately tied up with the struggle for black freedom.

Washington was the first US city to have a black majority, and its slaves were freed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862.

Indeed, the very shape of the city was influenced by the struggle over slavery, as the Virginia portions of the District of Columbia - now Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia - seceded from the Federal capital in 1842 in order to protect their slave trade.

It was not until the l960s that the city was granted self-rule by Congress, and although it votes in presidential elections it still does not have its own Senators or representatives.

Vibrant black culture

Washington has also been a vibrant centre of black culture, with theatres and jazz clubs centred around U Street from the 1920s and l930s.

Ted Williams as a Washington Senator, l969
Washington once had a baseball team watched by Presidents
Famous jazz museums like Duke Ellington and Billie Holliday began their careers there before moving on to the bright lights of Harlem in New York City.

And civil rights activist Marion Barry eventually became mayor of Washington - although not a success.

Sports and suburbs

The museum will focus on the variety of Washington neighbourhoods, starting with the local areas of Mt Vernon Square and Chinatown.

It also has a special section devoted to sports in Washington - a sore point for many residents now.

Washington lost its baseball team, the Senators, in the l970s, and this year parted company with basketball star Michael Jordan of the Washington Wizards.

Now Washington - and Arlington, Virginia - are bidding for a new baseball team, likely to be the Montreal Expos.

The post-war story of Washington is also the story of the growth of its suburbs, with 80% of the region's population now located outside the District of Columbia.

That has increased segregation and led to divisions that go beyond those that exist within the city itself.

Washington is now trying to redress the balance by pushing hard for the redevelopment of the downtown area just north of the capital, which has long been derelict.

The museum itself is just one of the signs of the reinvention of the city as a vibrant urban community - in the hope, as the current mayor says, that the 21st Century will be the century of the city.




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