Letter from the President
Freedom of the Past
By Charles F. Bryan, Jr., President and Chief Executive Officer
During the past several months, the VHS has presented an important exhibition entitled American Visions of Liberty & Freedom. The exhibition argues that in its simplest form American history is the story of liberty and freedom. Americans have had competing and even conflicting visions of liberty and freedom, at times debating and even fighting over them. Through this process, their meanings have gradually expanded, as each generation wrestles with their scope and application.
It is often observed that we Americans take our freedoms for granted, whether they be the freedom to vote, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or freedom of choice. There is another important freedom that is often overlooked—freedom of the past. I was reminded of this when I read about the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the 1990s. In a well-publicized act of state-sponsored destruction, the country's leadership decreed the systematic obliteration of historic Buddhist icons. Less well known were the Taliban's orders to empty the shelves of their national museum and archives in Kabul. As one official declared: "There is no place for sentimental feelings for these old things." It was as if he was afraid of history. Other totalitarian regimes have been afraid of the past as well. They too have destroyed evidence of their heritage or have censored and manipulated it to suit their own ideologies.
Free and open societies, on the other hand, value history and turn to it for instruction. They devote significant resources to saving the evidence of the past and making it accessible to the public. All of us associated with the VHS can take pride in the fact that it is one of America's most respected organizations dedicated to preserving and interpreting our heritage. It is worth remembering that institutions like the VHS are beacons of freedom of the past. They are places open to all people to learn the lessons of history freely and without censorship. As the keeper of unparalleled manuscript, rare book, and artifact collections, the VHS has been a bedrock of democracy for nearly 175 years. Although you may not have thought of it this way, your membership in the VHS and your support in other ways strengthen an important freedom we enjoy. To borrow from an age-old adage, the past, too, will make us free.
Posted August 2005
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