Slavery and Public History

The problem, as many of my classmates have already stated, is that changing minds about slavery and racism is often like talking to a brick wall. Ideas about race have passed down through generations and sometimes you’re a victim of backwards ideas just because of the place in which you were born. And, forgive me for the gross stereotyping, but the people who often need their minds opened the most, are the least likely to hit up a museum on a Saturday afternoon. So how do we educate and tell the real stories without “ostracizing” large groups of people or going to war with school boards?

I’m all for heavy, uncomfortable dialogue. These stories need to be told.  Make white people feel awful about slavery. We deserve it. And I’m all for two-sided arguments. Slavery doesn’t get to disappear into the abyss as an alternative fact – the very least we can do on the road to reparations is just admit to the brutal, ugly reality of what was done. Berlin’s quote from Garrison Frazier in 1865 hit me so hard that I had to put the book down and walk away for a moment. He defined slavery as “receiving by the irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent” (5). His definition highlights the pure simplicity of the matter: labor was needed, and using human beings against their will for capital gain was totally okay. And it had been totally okay for hundreds upon hundreds of years.

In some places, it’s still okay. And that’s half the reason we need to keep talking about it.

Learning to Let Go

I adore StoryCorps and was thrilled to see that it was included in this book, though I did have to really sit down and think about its relevancy in this particular regard.  I spent my own weekend elbows-deep in diaries, letters, and really personal primary sources that would not exist if not for one person choosing to put their thoughts to paper and contribute to the historical narrative. Of course, for most of these people, contributing to history wasn’t their primary goal… but I couldn’t be more grateful for it today. I see StoryCorps and other user-generated historical content in the same way. One hundred, two hundred years from now, historians will, I think, feel the same way about programs like these that I feel about my sources right now. (That is, if our profession still exists…) But I think it’s here where we also have to heavily rely on trained historians, who can synthesize the material: the “facts” with the individual stories, and really look at the way that stories can be edited to tell a story, for better or (usually) for worse.

I too had a difficult time picking out the source of contention between art and history. I think if one is worried about losing relevancy, or keeping attendance numbers high, then art could be the very first place to look for new perspectives and to bring a new, more broad audience into the room. I mean, this is why we have art historians, right? Stories can be told in a multitude of ways, and all throughout history we have primary sources from artists who chose to make a statement about their own world, their own era, their own perspective…

By PICASSO, la exposición del Reina-Prado. Guernica is in the collection of Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid.Source page: http://www.picassotradicionyvanguardia.com/08R.php (archive.org)
By PICASSO, la exposición del Reina-Prado. Guernica is in the collection of Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid.Source page: http://www.picassotradicionyvanguardia.com/08R.php (archive.org)

 

I struggle a little more with contemporary artists’ work being used to seriously interpret the past, but I also know that I have more to learn about artists such as reenactors, and how they bring their knowledge into play. Good thing there’s a real pro in the room to help me understand :)

Please Don’t Let Go…

The idea of a museum as “a place that would be a pleasure to visit on crowded days” (31) makes my skin crawl. I tend to turn away and resolve to come back another day if I see the parking lot full at places like museums, my anxiety heightened and my discomfort visible to everyone. It’s unfortunate that we’ve entered a reality where museums must be, as Joe mentioned in his response, “cheapened” by the flashy ability to connect to a social media platform, where your enjoyment requires cooperation between patrons, to have an app on your phone, or to speak face-to-face with an exhibit. Heaven forbid I have the desire to just wander through a museum and quietly experience it for myself.

Now, this isn’t to say that we should still be practicing the antiquated trend of separating expert from visitor (70-71). If anything is going to keep people from patronizing museums, it’s going to be that elitist environment in which you feel like you’re a part of the unwashed masses, wholly stupid and simply grateful to be allowed to tread on sacred ground. It is important, as well, to keep from petrifying a museum in one unchanging state, as people will only visit once, having already seen everything. (Two-headed calf, anyone?) So how can this be done without risking the alienation of those who don’t feel inclined to vocally or physically participate?

I think the balance comes from the integration of things like “dialogic museums” (83-95). Holy cow, do I love this idea. The style gives curators and historians the ability to shed old ways of presenting nothing but the facts, and, at the same time, also reject those old, exclusionary, historical narratives, by introducing new stories from those whose representation is often erased from the narrative altogether. They challenge visitors’ thinking, bring new ideas and faces into the museum, and, can still rely on technological advancements. By all means, encourage the public to submit their own voices, and suggest the stories that should be told. Solicit those untold stories via social media platforms, and engage in a dialogue about why exclusionary narratives are harmful. Make history accessible and worthy of a conversation. But most importantly, when it comes time to create a physical space to tell these stories, they can be curated in ways that allow visitors to enjoy exhibits and installations on their own terms. Now, obviously this isn’t the only solution, and not every museum can put something like this together or align this style with the primary goal of their establishment. But it’s a nice starting point to think about…