As knowledge acquirers, we often put faith in libraries and museums to provide us with a full detail of history as it happened. We often expect that these institutions are giving us honest and unbiased accounts of history through objects and artifacts. The architecture of the buildings themselves often assist us in these conclusions as well, with grandiose columns and entryways, built above street level in gleaming white marble, an almost religious agora of information archived on pristine white pedestals. Justifiably, we expect our institutions of knowledge to provide us with knowledge. But what happens when the history kept in these castles is biased, or incomplete? What if the full history is too troubling to admit to and never gets represented?
This problem has been addressed countless times by those in the information profession. Sharon MacDonald for example writes of difficult heritage in her article,” Is ‘Difficult Heritage’ Still ‘Difficult’?: Why Public Acknowledgment of Past Perpetration May No Longer Be So Unsettling to Collective Identities.” She writes the article in reference specifically to WWII and The Holocaust but the themes of of hidden or shameful history still apply to America and how we look at slavery.
Slavery is that difficult heritage for America. History books, museums, our culture, all talk about slavery as if it happened in a dark distant past of our timeline instead of being interspersed with the invention of the telegraph, and the post office as well as public schools. Like WWII in MacDonald’s article, American slavery is, “[past] ‘recognised as meaningful in the present but that [is] also contested and awkward for public reconciliation with a positive, self-affirming contemporary identity’” (MacDonald 1). As such, it is awkward and uncomfortable to take responsibility for a horrible and tragic part of a country’s own history while still retaining some iota of patriotism and still identifying with a troubling origin. A new museum in Washington D.C. aims to nullify the divide between African American History and White American History by by putting on display objects from our country’s troubling past.
In 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opened its doors to the public as the 19th installment of the Smithsonian museums. NMAAHC boasts a collection of over 36,000 artifacts from over as many patrons. The collection is comprised of national treasures like James Baldwin’s passport and Nat Turner’s Bible to items from the closet of the Everyman like old photographs, protest posters, and military medals. What’s best about the collection, apart from its eclectic nature, is that the entirety of said collection is catalogued online on the museum’s website that is easily searchable and requires neither a ticket nor a trip to D.C.
The museum itself structurally functions differently than the traditional history museum. The floor on which a patron starts their excursion through the exhibits is rooted in the soil of the Mall. The exhibitions flow chronologically from past to present, bottom to top, and begin with slavery poignantly buried in the soil of America’s capital, literally and metaphorically laying the foundation for the rest of history to come (Cotter 1). The artifacts range from a child-sized set of iron cuffs to a full sized slave cabin, traumatic and real, the museum also employs rest areas and counselors to speak with, should the presentation of this history become too much. Later in the New York Times article about the museum, Holland Cotter explains, “Its second level, “The Segregation Era,” gives valuable attention to the topic of black entrepreneurship, about which many Americans probably know little. But what stops you in your tracks is the sight of a white satin Ku Klux Klan hood, shimmery and soiled, sitting in a case with photographs of lynchings on display nearby.” The exhibits through formatting and acquisition are carefully curated to not tip the scales of pitied tragedy one way or ignorant optimism the other. The museum director and curators lay out the exhibitions in such a way that they present fully the hardships and successes of black people in America again without falling too far one way or another. Part of what makes this balance possible is the means by which they acquire their artifacts. Prior to the opening of the museum, objects were collected through an antiques roadshow-esque trek around the country. Michele Norris describes the excursion, “They began their work a decade ago believing that many of the artifacts, documents, and treasures that would reveal the story of African Americans were secreted in basements, attics, garages, and storage trunks. Items with high monetary value might be in the hands of collectors, but the curators had a hunch that many with great significance were still undiscovered, because many museums have overlooked black history.” (Norris).
Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook address the problem Norris points out of black history being overlooked by museums in their, “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory” article. “Archives are social constructs. Their origins lie in the information needs and social values of the rulers, governments, businesses, associations, and individuals who establish and maintain them” (3) Like archives, a museum’s content is structured by the establishment that maintains it. Materials are acquired via wealthy donors or notable patrons. The NMAAHC decided to create an updated collective memory of American history by forgoing traditional acquisition and asking regular people to submit objects that they felt held historical significance. Again, Michele Norris says it best, “At their best, museums help us understand and interpret our complex world by illuminating history and influencing attitudes. That becomes a challenge when we must examine our darkest episodes. Any society scarred by war, genocide, famine, displacement, or slavery must decide what to remember and how to remember. Individual memory is one thing, but collective memory stretches across generations and helps define a nation’s character” (Norris).
The NMAAHC contributes to a wider cultural collective memory of America’s history by calling upon African American people to submit their own bits of history, items that may have otherwise been overlooked as historically significant. The museum puts the control of representation back into the hands of the common people while at the same time giving African American history a platform usually reserved for White America. In doing so, they address America’s most difficult heritage in a way that is informative, has a wide scope, is real, and is not as influenced by what archives or wealthy donors already have. The museum created a new archive of our history that is completely accessible and completely legible even without the trip to Washington. And in enlisting the help of the public to submit artifacts, the museum truly did acquire treasures in the archives of family homes both in the physical form and in the form of a well- rounded knowledge of a difficult past.