Museums and Ferguson

I believe a history museum or historical site is a perfect location to discuss Ferguson and race issues in the US.   It is the history of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and institutional racism that has created an African American underclass that is daily reminded that their place is still at the back of the bus.  They are bombarded with media images of the wealth, abundance and success that is unattainable to so many people that are marginalized through discrimination.  Is it any wonder that many young African Americans turn to anti-social behavior when the approved path to success and respect is closed to them?  What affect does it have on young African Americans to know they will be followed in stores, are unwelcome outside of their neighborhoods, will be pulled over for DWB, and are generally suspect?  How can a person not internalize at least some aspects of society’s rejection?

According to Adrianne Russell‘s writing in Cabinet of Curiosities (December 11, 2014),  every museum “should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus or mission.”  Writing in Museum Commons (December 16, 2014), Melanie Adams concurs, because for her museums are supposed to be places of learning and therefore should provide educational opportunities for the entire community.  She addresses four points to facilitate successful community engagement: (1) Have inclusive exhibits/programs throughout the year so addressing a current event does not appear reactionary, (2) partner with organizations that have experience and expertise in fostering dialog with diverse groups, (3) communicate with stakeholders and, (4) as much as possible have museum employees at all levels active in the community.  For those who may ask why a museum, whose mission has traditionally been viewed, in a conservative mindset, to collect, preserve and present, should discourse on current events, Deborah F. Schwartz replies in Museum (January 4, 2015) with “history is a vital modality for understanding the dilemmas of contemporary life,” for the past helps us comprehend our now and our tomorrow.

But before museums jump headfirst into issues that may be controversial Rebecca Herz cautions in Museum Questions (December 5, 2014), that museums need to look at their own make up and strive for greater diversity particularly at the senior level and in terms of the museum board’s make up.  If not, communities may perceive so called public engagement as privileged people going through the motions of compassion without really caring.  Moreover, if museums tackle controversial topics they need to have “strategies for facilitating politically loaded conversations” to provide a safe space with conversation that is geared toward learning and empathy rather than one that degenerates to name calling and further misunderstanding.

I think for history museums it is reasonable to host any current event that can be linked to our country’s history.  Therefore, most hot button issues that raise the hackles or cheer the soul, depending on your outlook, are possible topics.  But if a museum does address current issues how does it ensure it isn’t unfairly favoring one point of view over another?  In August 2014 the Missouri History Museum hosted a town hall meeting concerning youth and community in the aftermath of Ferguson.  It was moderated by African American civil rights activist Kevin Powell, whose message is understanding, reconciliation and justice.  By some standards he would be called a “liberal,” so does this mean the MHM should offer a “conservative” speaker the opportunity to talk about the same topics?  If a museum gave space to a group discussing historical discrimination against women and how it relates to disparate pay today, should it have to offer space to a group whose counterpoint is that it was not, and is not discrimination, but divinely assigned gender roles that everybody should embrace?  Should a publically funded science museum have to allow an exhibit on creationism if it has one on evolution?

I asked some conservatively minded friends about the MHM’s town hall meeting and they wanted to know if the Police Officers’ Benevolent Association wanted to use the MHM to present a talk on the difficulties and dangers of policing in an armed society if they would have been given the space to do so.  Others felt that public museums are supposed to be apolitical and any kind of current event dialog is going to engender disputes between extremes taking away from the museums learning agenda.  These were the reasonable comments.   Some, recounted how Michael Brown had robbed a convenience store and assaulted the owner, had a rap sheet as “long as your arm” and either assaulted the police officer or tried to kill him.  I asked, “regardless of the circumstances” doesn’t it seem like law enforcement is institutionalized to “protect and serve” in wealthy or middle class neighborhoods, somewhat indifferent to poor white communities, but focused on “policing” poor African American neighborhoods?  I was told the police go to where the trouble is and if people were obeying the law, they’d have nothing to worry about.  It’s always interesting to note, that poorer white Americans have, on an economic level more in common with poorer black Americans than they have with wealthy white Americans, but seem to be the demographic most stridently opposed to any empathy for African Americans (arguably my own middle class bias or condescension on display here).  Another legacy of slavery perhaps, where even if you were the “lowest of the low” in white society, at least you were not black.  More than one person thought of museums as moribund places where “old stuff” is, and they found it inconceivable that a museum would host something like the MHM had.  They saw an abuse of government funding and assumed the event was designed to inflame passions in another act by race hustlers who refuse to take responsibility for their actions.

In an AP story on January 2, Jim Salter reported that the MHM was collecting artifacts from Ferguson’s public protests after the shooting in order to document history as it occurs.  He reported the MHM Library and Collections director as saying an exhibition is not currently planned, but these are artifacts of a significant political event in our history that should be preserved.   After the AP story appeared several conservative websites, such as Before It’s News and The Black Sphere, misreported this as “creating a museum of Ferguson” and stating “If this guy believes a black guy being a thug, then being killed by the cops is history, then that better be one HUGE museum.”  And you can only imagine the comments on the site in relation to this.

According to ProPublica’s website (October 13, 2014), young black men are twenty-one times more likely to be shot by the police than are young white men.  How many white parents who have “the talk” with their teenage sons are not talking about sex, but how to deal with the police so they are not shot?  As reported in the Boston Globe on November 26 of last year, this rite of passage included one father who took away all his son’s hoodies because he was worried that they invite police attention.   White kids get the benefit of the doubt and black kids get labeled as potential threats to be responded to in a preemptive manner.

3 thoughts on “Museums and Ferguson”

  1. It seems like such an overwhelming problem. Even at the elementary school level, there is a huge disparity in punishments between black and white students. Until recently, (with a change in principal) it was much more common for minority students to be kicked out of school for minor infractions. I just can’t believe that attitudes and actions like this still continue in the educational world.

  2. Wow. Thanks for sharing all these figures and your friend’s perspectives Victor. It is interesting to hear what the public thinks the role of public historians are. We sit in class and discuss lofty ideals and “dreams”, but how realistic is that in the real world?

    1. I know. I hate to be cynical but sometimes, as you said, we discuss these lofty ideas in class where we are mainly preaching to the choir, however outside of class it seems like you end up banging your head against a very conservative unsympathetic wall. Wear a helmet I guess!

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