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Beyond The Big Dig
About this project

What happens to the ribbon of land being created by the depression of the Central Artery may be the most important development decision to face Boston in a generation.


A museum about Boston

By Anne D. Emerson, 7/4/2002

ON THIS FIRST Independence Day in post-Sept. 11 America, our country is witnessing a rekindling of patriotic spirit on a scale unmatched in generations. Along with that passion comes this possibility: We can harness what might otherwise be a passing moment of civic renewal sparked by tragedy and instead make it a truly enduring bond of national unity grounded in common ideals. That's a challenge Boston, the cradle of American values, is uniquely suited to lead.

For we are a thoughtful people, distrustful of the complacency sometimes associated with overt displays of patriotic fervor. But we also live in the midst of deep local history that changed the course of this nation and the world. Acknowledging our history, understanding it in all its complexity, is an ongoing part of our healing from the daily wounds of simply living and the awesome terrors of living in this time and on this fragile earth.

Now more than ever, we are giving thoughtful consideration to questions like: What does it mean to be American? What are we willing to sacrifice to remain free? And what about our nation -- our ideals and story -- stirs such hope and pride not just among Americans but in the hearts of people everywhere who aspire to the freedom we enjoy?

There's never been a better time than this Fourth of July to find out. And there's no better means of contemplating those questions than to explore our history.

We use history all the time in our lives, consciously and unconsciously -- personal history, local history, national history. Historical narrative is the way we build our lives. We use it to create our identity, our personal associations with place and people. We use it to empower and inspire ourselves with the knowledge that ordinary people before us have done the extraordinary. And to caution ourselves through understanding darker historical shadows. We use history as a spiritual anchor that grounds us to place and time. We use it to understand our neighbors and how they came to be different from us. We use it as a fundamental tool to impart our values and our understanding of our world to our children. And we use history for the pure pleasure of it, for the way understanding it enriches our lives and our landscape.

Now, on this Fourth of July, more Americans than ever before are eager to take part in that pursuit. Each of us can start by taking the initiative to share history with those around us. It's a time to go to the Old State House to hear the Declaration of Independence read as it was on July 18, 1776, for the first time to the citizens of Massachusetts. We should reacquaint ourselves with the first portion of our own state Constitution -- most of which was drafted by John Adams -- whose articulation of the ''Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts'' is a powerful reminder that people immigrate to America for our freedoms, not economic opportunity alone.

Bostonians have a unique opportunity to harness today's spark of patriotism to kindle a lasting flame of civic identity and community caring. Right now, enormous energy is gathering around a vision for a Boston Museum that would serve as a central cultural and civic institution in land above the Central Artery. Ironically, though people the world over flock to Boston to visit its historical sites, we have no single place that connects our own stories. Moreover, our historical treasures -- from the State House to Paul Revere's house -- could be enriched by being bound to a common place.

A Boston Museum could serve as a focal point for exploring the wealth of history in our city -- a place that connects the dots on Boston's historical map. That would be an indispensable service to visitors to our city and, therefore, an important economic infusion for an economy dependent on tourism as well.

Not only is this Fourth of July especially fit for a discussion of history; this moment in Boston's history is also particularly suited to exploring such a museum. The Central Artery project, which will create 30 acres of parkland and civic space, will define our city for the next couple of centuries. A Boston Museum could play a vital, unifying role in it.

Most of all, a Boston Museum would be an institution that helps to foster our own civic identity by exploring our common history -- and recording it as our shared story continues to unfold. There's no better time to recommit ourselves to remembering -- and celebrating -- the history that makes us whole.

Anne D. Emerson is executive director of the Boston Museum Project.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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