A few weeks ago during Christmastime I bought a few Apple episodes of Ken Burns documentaries including The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, and Ken Burns: America. It was my grandmother who introduced me to the Roosevelt series. I like Ken Burns, because his approach is more appreciative than critical. I think the study of history tends to have a poor reputation today because too often historians seek to highlights the frailties of human history rather than our defining triumphs over those frailties.
One of the moments from Ken Burns: America in the episode on Congress has stayed with me. David McCullough is speaking:
In the old House of Representatives, which is now Statuary Hall, the members of the House looked up at two statues which are still there. One is a figure representing Liberty, and the other, behind them, was Clio, the muse of History, keeping note of their actions and holding the clock. Very important idea that was they did there didn’t just matter in the moment, but for time to come. That they would be measured by history, that they would have to live up to standards that would be set by historical precedent.
After finishing the documentary I looked up Clio’s statue, and found the photo for this post on the Architect of the Capitol’s site along with more on the 1819 era piece. On the topic of an appreciative approach to history, I think Clio’s presence is striking for at least two reasons.
Clio’s presence is an example, first, of what I think of as a sort of enchanted approach to architecture and physical places that believed in the power of symbols not only as a way to distinguish a building, but also to actually influence the spirit and actions of the people who inhabited those spaces. I think our artists tend to be disenchanted today, which is why so much of contemporary art is inscrutable.
Clio “holding the clock” is also powerful because as a manifestation of history, she roots us in physical place and in some way can make us accountable to the better angels of our nature. She has watched over every legislator from Henry Clay and Daniel Webster to Jeannette Rankin to the present. When we look at her, we have an opportunity to consider the triumphs and defeats of ourselves as a people as we decide our future.