Thursday, May 21, 2009

Transformative Museums

I am doing a May-mester course with Dr. Spencer Crew on issues of conscience, commemoration, and memory at museums and historic sites. Because the course is a semester's worth of work in just 2.5 weeks, everything is very intensive. We're looking at sites that deal with strong emotional issues and reading up on lots of theory, and that amounts to exhaustion on a number of levels.

Part of my mental exhaustion is that I am honestly rethinking the purpose and mission of historic sites, what they can accomplish, and what areas of culture they should be a part of. As my brain is literally rewiring itself, I find that I am having trouble forming cohesive sentences and yet I am making numerous connections within my head. It is making me consider how the brain works and the type of research that a friend of mine is doing at Michigan State in psycho-linguistics.

For the class we did a two-day visit to Memphis to experience the National Civil Rights Museum and Graceland as places that are involved in commemoration and memory. I have been to both sites a number of times, but with the context of this class I found an entirely new way of looking at what they do. The result ultimately was that my opinion of the NCRM went up and my opinion of Graceland went way down.

Dr. Crew and class at the NCRM

I've always had problems with the sheer amount of text that is in the exhibits of the NCRM. On the one hand, I think that they are trying to cover too much of the history of the Civil Rights movement, on the other hand, I'm disappointed in some of the things that they leave out (there's no pleasing historians, is there?). But I have always liked that rather than just being a shrine to MLK, that they strive to educate people about the movement he was a part of and what the legacy of that movement is. Now, they do have a shrine to MLK. There is the exterior memorial where he was shot that anyone can see as they pass by, and inside they have a viewing area where you can look at the rooms as they would have looked when MLK died.

The museum itself is packed full of information, but going into the shrine with all of that context makes seeing where MLK was all the more powerful. It is chilling and stirring every time I go. A bedroom is a place of intimacy and security, and when he stepped out of those doors and back out into the world, he was shot. What I think truly completes the experience is that the museum purchased and interpreted the boarding house where James Earl Ray stayed and the assassin took his shot. As a kind of parallel, they preserved the room where Ray stayed and the bathroom that they know was where the assassin shot MLK from. You can stand right next to that and look out onto the balcony where the exterior shrine to MLK is. Purely chilling.

Fellow classmate Angela Smith visiting with infamous protester Jacqueline Smith (no relation to one another)

But what I see as the most telling part of the NCRM's integrity is that they don't run away from controversy. In that boarding house they address all of the conspiracy theories about MLK's death and whether or not Ray was the real assassin. They also see the protestor who is at the entrance to the museum as part of the story of the site. They welcome controversy and dissent and see themselves as a place for dialogue. And that is part of their larger mission as a member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. Their programming seems to be very much in line with fellow coalition member Monte Sole in Italy.

We asked the NCRM staff tough questions and they welcomed them. They also spoke of how they want to use their legacy to expand their international programming and be activists in the world community to support social justice. And they have a plan to do that.

While I had been skeptical about museums as transformative institutions, I think that the NCRM does exactly that. They make a place for commemoration and sharing of memories, but then they take a step beyond that to spur themselves and others into action. This, of course, just encourages me further down the path of the dreaded label "activist historian."

I'll tackle Graceland tomorrow, which is a site that does commemoration well, but doesn't seem to have even considered the full potential of what their site could offer.

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