Wagging the Dog

Is the proliferation of visitors centers making us miss the point?

By Dwight Young

Order a copy of Dwight Young's book of Back Page essays

Here's a sign that American civilization is in trouble: We have too many centers.

Like the local "early childhood education center," for example; not long ago it was just a kindergarten. Or the "automotive repair center" that used to be called a garage. I've seen a "municipal government services center" and a "worship center"—titles that don't trip off the tongue nearly so easily as "city hall" and "church." My favorite is the "multimedia learning resource center." Frankly, I liked it better when it was simply the library.

This surfeit of pseudocenters can be shrugged off as merely a product of our "why-use-one-word-when-three-will-do" culture. The current plague of visitors centers, however, is downright alarming, and not because of word abuse. Here's the situation in simple terms: Visitors centers are taking over the earth. They've already conquered Washington.

Sure, some of them serve a useful purpose, providing information and orientation, helping people find their way around and increasing their understanding of what they see. Arlington Cemetery has a visitors center, and so do the Smithsonian and the White House, and I assume they do their job well—though I do find it curious that the White House Visitor Center is located two blocks from, and totally out of sight of, the White House itself.

But why would a place like the Washington Monument need one? The monument is a grand thing, noble and inspiring in its simplicity, marvelously self-assured and completely self-contained. It doesn't need a lot of interpretation. In fact, the National Park Service could tell folks all they need to know with three little signs: "ROBERT MILLS DESIGNED IT," "IT'S 555 FEET TALL," and "NO, GEORGE WASHINGTON ISN'T BURIED UNDER IT."

I'm more concerned about the planned visitors center at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Maya Lin's acclaimed memorial is a masterpiece of mute eloquence. The center will be anything but mute, with exhibits and maybe even a movie theater and a realistic battle scene—all with the goal of "giving visitors the experience they need." In fact, after being bombarded by so much information and imagery, they may decide that what they need is a rest, forgoing the powerful experience of standing in front of the black stone mirror that is the Wall.

What a scary prospect: People soak up exhibits in the visitors centers and load up on loot in the gift shops, and what happens in between—experiencing the sites themselves—gets lost. Imagine the conversation when they return home: "How was your trip to Washington? Did you see all the sights?" "No, but we saw all the visitors centers. And bought some neat snow globes."

In addition to being too numerous and often superfluous, many of the new centers are, or will be, underground. Thankfully, plans for a subterranean one at the Washington Monument have been scrapped (though construction of above-ground security facilities has left the place so littered with concrete barriers that it looks like a yard sale at Stonehenge), but the Vietnam memorial center is still slated to go underground, and there's talk of similar projects at other sites. If this keeps up, future tourists will leave Washington pale and puny from underexposure to sunlight and air, and the city will be a mecca for moles. At least they'll be well informed.

A final note for anyone planning a trip to Washington this summer: The noble East Front of the Capitol doesn't overlook a green, tree-studded lawn anymore. That once-grassy sward is now a muddy pit the size of Connecticut where a huge underground visitors center is being built. The project is over budget and behind schedule and threatens to swallow up much of Capitol Hill (there's a good chance that the Library of Congress' back issues of National Geographic will tumble into that hole and never be seen again), and some people are saying it's a waste of taxpayers' money. I'm thinking they should just stop digging and paint the pit to look like the Grand Canyon and save people the trouble of going to Arizona.

Of course this new tourist attraction will need a visitors center.