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Editor's Note, March/April 2003

National Humanities Medalists

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, March/April 2003 | Volume 24, Number 2

In this issue we honor some exemplary people who have been selected by the President to receive National Humanities Medals for their achievements.

Among them are a professor of classics and history, Donald Kagan, and a television personality who has devoted himself to literacy and lifelong learning, Art Linkletter. They include Patricia MacLachlan, whose Sarah, Plain and Tall has enchanted generations of children, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, whose cultivation of creativity has nurtured a dozen Pulitzer Prize winners and four of the last five poet laureates. Another of the medalists is the economist and social critic, Thomas Sowell, and another, an unlikely iconoclast of television, Brian Lamb.

Two of the medals are being awarded for efforts to save pieces of our history. One is given to Frankie Hewitt, the entrepreneur who turned the lights back on at Ford’s Theatre a century after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated there. The other medal represents a collective endeavor: the work done by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association to preserve the home of the nation’s first president, George Washington.

The importance of conserving vestiges of history takes us from a moment as recent as the flooding of Prague last summer to the cultural heritage of ancient Egypt and Asia. Two significant collections are opening this spring with support from the Endowment. The Brooklyn Museum of Art is adding six hundred objects to its refurbished Egyptian gallery, doubling the works available to visitors, and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco has more than doubled in size by moving into the city’s old main library. Its opening exhibition, “In a New Light: The Asian Art Museum Collection,” explores the meaning of “Asia” with 2,500 objects from cultures as diverse as Tibet, Cambodia, China, and Iran.

“If you look at Pakistan and Japan, they have much less in common culturally than, say, Ireland and Russia, but both places are considered part of Asia,” says chief curator Forrest McGill. The collection ranges from the commercial--porcelain ware made by the Thai and Vietnamese to compete with the Chinese--to the spiritual, as seen in Buddhist religious iconography and the lion-headed Dakini made for the Qianlong emperor by his imperial workshop.

Some objects indicate the precarious position of those in power. As the story goes, one type of rare Ming dish was coveted not just for its beauty but for its ability to change color if touched by poison.

The successors to the Ming, the Manchu, devised ingenious methods of governing so as to ensure their sovereignty. They assigned two officials, one Chinese and one non-Chinese, to each governmental position. “Basically, you always had one guy checking up on the guy next to him,” comments Willard Peterson, editor of the newest volume in the Cambridge History of China series. The Manchu used a system of sealed messages to guarantee that official reports had not been tampered with en route to the emperor.

The relationship between power and secrecy continues to fascinate. Historians are currently analyzing documents declassified from Soviet and East German repositories; the pages provide a provocative look at the undersurface of the Cold War. “Archives are a repository of a nation’s truths,” says Nancy Meyers of the Cold War International History Project. “We believe in the importance of primary documents. They help you to understand and interpret your own history.”