The Capitol time capsule thing this year has led to a lot of thinking about time and reflections on those who discover messages from the past. Perhaps historians are more conscious of things like that than other people—I don’t really know. But this one, who has spent more than forty years writing the first draft of history, as the role of journalists has sometimes been described, has been intrigued by the whole thing.
One of the things in the new time capsule being put in the Capitol cornerstone is the book co-authored with Jeff Ball about the art of the capitol. Tucked into the back cover is a letter from us to those who we hope will open the capsule in 2115. Part of the letter is an excerpt from President Kennedy’s speech at Amherst, Massachusetts less than a month before his death in which he expressed a dream for America.
The nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having “nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.” I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future. I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.
A few days later, as I was discussing the time capsule with a friend, it occurred to me that many of us remember John Kennedy, who died 52 years ago this month. If that message is discovered in 2115, those who read that quote will be reading it from the perspective of people who are 152 years removed from the time when Kennedy gave that speech.
And I wonder if they will see those words with the same kind of perspective that we see some cherished words that were spoken by another president 152 years in our past, this month, about his dream of a nation “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
One-hundred-fifty-two years ago, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. One-hundred-fifty-two years after John Kennedy’s Amherst Address on October 26, 1963, Americans we cannot imagine will read his of his dream for his country.
Abraham Lincoln was still vivid as a living person in the memories of many who were alive when the original capitol cornerstone was sealed in 1915 just as John F. Kennedy is still vivid as a living person in the memories of many in 2015.
Time. It plays with your mind.
One of the most intriguing pieces your correspondent ever read about the encapsulation of time was written by Herbert Winlock, the director of the New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1930s. He wrote in a museum publication about the model boats, statuettes and other things depicting life in his time found in the Egyptian tomb of a man named Meketra who died about 1950 BCE.
The beam of light shot in to a little world of four thousand years ago, and I was gazing down into the midst of brightly painted little men going this way and that. A tall, slender girl gazed across at me perfectly composed; a gang of little men with sticks in their upraised hands drove spotted oxen; rowers tugged at their oars on a fleet of boats, while one ship seemed floundering right in front of me with its bow balanced precariously in the air. And all of this busy going and coming was in uncanny silence, as though the distance back over forty centuries I looked across was too great for even an echo to reach my ears.
Four thousand years is an eternity. Just saying it over and over again gives no conception of the ages that have gone by since this funeral. Stop and think of how far off William the Conqueror seems. That takes you only a quarter of the way back. Julius Caesar takes you halfway back. With Saul and David you are three-fourths of the way. But there remains yet another thousand years to bridge with your imagination. Yet in that dry, still, dark little chamber those boats and statues had stood indifferent to all that went on in the outer world, as ancient in the days of Caesar as Caesar is to us, but so little changed that even the fingerprints of the men who put them there were still fresh upon them. Not only fingerprints, but even flyspecks, cobwebs, and dead spiders remained from the time when those models were stored in some empty room in the noble’s house waiting for his day of death and burial. I even suspect that some of his grandchildren had sneaked in and played with them while they were at that house in ancient Thebes.
One century. Forty centuries. The past often waits quietly to speak in the future and then touches those who find it and gives them a personal perspective on what was. And is.
(Winlock’s story of Meketra’s tomb was related by Thomas Hoving, then the head of the MMA, in his book Tutankhamun: The untold Story, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1978.)