Another case for museums as public forums

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MuseumsFergusonTweetI have always thought of public history as a tool to assist us in mediating unchartered territory. More specifically, museums can serve as public forums to tackle persistent forms of oppression that have escaped clear resolve. This vision seems particularly relevant today.  There is a wide gap between understanding the inaccessible civil liberties and rights black people struggled for and acknowledging operations of oppression that persist into the present day. Rather by willful ignorance, genuine unawareness, or fear, much of the American public lives in that gap. Through exhibits, collections, community outreach projects, and continued dialogue, museums can assist the public in mediating that gap where we have not gained much traction.

Following the election of the first black president, many members of the public entered a post-racial trance. Many Americans no longer felt a sense of urgency to deal with our country’s deepest moral ill. They believed Barack Obama’s election was the most convincing evidence of triumph over a racially contentious past. This trance was disrupted by highly publicized incidents of white police officers killing unarmed black males in Beavercreek, Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland. Yet most museums remain disconnected, rather than navigating outside the status quo. Not making any moves may seem like an apolitical, objective, and conflict-free approach, but this approach is indeed problematic. It actually suggests an intentional silencing. Museums have demonstrated a pattern of actively muting uncomfortable conversations.

There seems to be a wave of museums attempting to engage more visitors with race in their interpretive plans, but this tendency to actively mute uncomfortable conversations still seems pretty loud. It became most noticeable when I began hosting a monthly Twitter conversation with a colleague, with the goal of dissecting how museums can respond to Ferguson.[1] In our first chat, many participants indicated that their employers gave them specific directions not to discuss race or the recent events. One even noted that she had never seen such a large group of people with some variation of a “views are my own” disclaimer on their Twitter profile page, drawing a clear delineation between the institution they worked for and their personal views.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the chat showed that museums, especially history museums, shy away from tackling contemporary events–especially controversial ones. A more critical dialogue would seek meaningful and long-lasting ways to incorporate current events that have deep-rooted pasts. Pushing that critical dialogue a step further would entail asking why contemporary issues dealing with race seem to be the first that museums mute.

The Twitter chat has highlighted some of the exemplary examples of museums that responded to Ferguson. We discussed the Missouri History Museum’s town hall meetings and their commitment to collecting Ferguson protest artifacts as significant steps to preserving and constructing a complete narrative for the future.[2] We have also discussed the Northwest African American Museum, primarily because it still produces meaningful conversations. Studying the Northwest African American Museum combats the popular excuse that certain museums should not address Ferguson because events in their community did not reflect what was going on there. Museums can help us navigate this uncharted land, demonstrating that what happened in Ferguson is not so far-fetched or foreign to other parts of the country.

Museums can serve as forums. Rather than hiding from the controversy, they can facilitate conversations about the United States’ long history of excessive police force and racism. Mississippi’s Parchman Farm provides a compelling example. In Worse than Slavery, historian David Oshinsky’s examination of Parchman from the cotton-field chain gang days after the Civil War to the 1960s, Oshinsky argues that the American legal system never intended to punish those who exploit or murder black people. An institution notorious for its convict lease system, Parchman disproportionately incarcerated black males. Indeed, Michael Brown is not an isolated figure, and Ferguson, Missouri, (where despite having a nearly 70% black community, just three of fifty-three police officers and, until the municipal election on April 7, only one of six city council members were black) is not an outlier. Urban outlets across America experience a similar racial uneasiness bubbling just underneath the surface. Acknowledging this uneasiness, at the very least, provides the public with a truer and more useful narrative.

The blood of Amadou Diallo, Malcolm Ferguson, Timothy Thomas, Alberta Spruill, and Sean Bell–all unarmed black people killed by police within the last two decades–has spattered our contemporary history. Yet, community engagement programs rarely speak of their lives, and many people do not recognize their names. Collections, or the tactile representation of their experience, are scarce. There is no intellectual or practical integrity in leaving out these narratives. On the most basic level, regardless if the public believes their deaths were justified or not, they are all a part of a growing matrix of black people whose deaths have been protested in a desperate call for a recalibrated justice system. It is impractical for museums to start or maintain relevance with the black community while dismissing one of their most salient issues since Jim Crow. By joining the conversation as listeners, then collaborators, public historians, and museums have the opportunity to do work beyond paternalistic or superficial frameworks.

Forums are not always smooth. Sometimes they have prickly edges. Museums have a stronger chance at remaining relevant by not fearing the discomfort that comes with embracing our contested past and present. The process can be murky and uncomfortable, but it is not our job to be comfortable about the sources we uncover and the stories that are different from our own experiences. Becoming familiar with the discomfort in this process is what will close the gap between understanding the inaccessible civil liberties and rights black people struggled for and acknowledging persistent operations of oppression. Closing that gap is also a crucial part of healing.

[1] Adrianne Russell of Cabinet of Curiosities and I host and moderate the Twitter chat #museumsrespondtoferguson on the third Wednesday of each month. The chat was born out of the open letter Museums Respond to Ferguson that Gretchen Jennings led. Russell and I see the chat as a way to continue the necessary dialogue about museums and race, after the letter.

[2] As the Ferguson narrative continues to unfold, the Missouri History Museum has shown that even with its progressive programming, the institution still has restrictions on how much it will engage controversial subjects. You can read about the museum cutting a program connecting Ferguson and Palestine here.

~ Aleia Brown is a Public History PhD candidate in Middle Tennessee State University’s Department of History. Currently, she is a visiting scholar at the Michigan State University Museum. Her dissertation illuminates how black women have used quilting to interpret and memorialize the black freedom struggle. Ms. Brown co-hosts the Twitter chat #museumsrespondtoferguson every third Wednesday with Adrianne Russell. She also co-hosts the Twitter chat #BlkTwitterstorians every first Saturday with Joshua Crutchfield.​

  1. I find a good facilitator goes a long way toward helping these conversations become more fruitful, and that once the conversation has been completed, all members of racially mixed audiences are not only pleased, but ready for more. People’s fears of these conversations need to be balanced with the positive sense of accomplishment they feel when they’ve actually gone through it. What we have to battle is reluctance, not lack of success. Good job Aleia!

  2. Brian says:

    Thank you, Alecia. I appreciate catching the Twitter chats when I can. As an employee for the National Park Service, I’m a member of a group called Allies for Inclusion, a pilot, voluntary, facilitated dialogue group of employees in the Washington, DC area. We hosted two brown bags on Ferguson back in October. Both were met with “Why is NPS talking about this?” and “It’s too soon, we don’t know all of the facts.” The discussions were rich, filled with insight and pain and anger and some hope.

    We weren’t alone in this discussion: Jefferson Memorial Expansion National Memorial’s education department (Julie Northrip, Peter Hovey and VIP John Northrip) along with other volunteers and educators, participated from August 20th through 22nd, providing educational opportunities to elementary through middle school students at the Ferguson Public Library. The programs included Dred Scott trials, one room school house programs, and various activities. These programs allowed students to discuss citizenship and freedom. Over 200 participated in this opportunity. Rally and vigils occurred at the Old Courthouse, the site of the Dred Scott case. The MLK Birth Home in Atlanta hosted “The Fierce Urgency of Now” with the King Center, bringing students from 4 schools from Ferguson (via Google Hangouts) to discuss how the events were impacting their community. Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site and other places created other, informal opportunities to address race and power.

    NPS historic and cultural sites are not museums, per se, but can fall into the same conundrum of being “apolitical” and seeming to be uncaring about contemporary issues that affect the public. These moments provide opportunities for NPS to re-establish relevance with today’s audiences, but there needs to be a level of emotional intelligence and training involved. A skilled facilitator, as mentioned in the previous comment, is one way.

    1. Brian says:

      And forgive me for misspelling your name.

  3. Andrea says:

    Thank you!!! I believe it’s our responsibility to be a forum.

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