Collecting the Painful Present

Recently, the news broke that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC) had expressed interest in preserving the gazebo, then set for demolition, in the Cleveland park where Tamir Rice had been shot.  A few days later, the NMAAHC stepped in again—this time to set the record straight.  It was not preservation that they were after, and there would be no space in their museum for Rice’s story, not yet anyway.  They had intended to intercede on behalf of Black Lives Matter activists, and some vague wording, with the Smithsonian name behind it, had been misunderstood by the media and the city of Cleveland.

The backlash started right away.  One contingent expressed outrage that the gazebo should even be considered for preservation, though for different objections.  They felt either that it is perhaps insignificant in the scope of human history or less significant relative to the Smithsonian’s other treasures.  They may have felt that it provides such a grim reminder of a terrible event, more fit for a memorial than a museum.  Of course, there were people arguing the opposite—that Tamir Rice’s story is worthy of preservation through the gazebo, that it is a crucial cornerstone in interpreting recent African-American history.  One smart friend of mine raised the question of why preserve anything related to this particular case.  In the rash of recent police violence against African-American men and women, why would Tamir Rice’s story be singled out for interpretation and preservation?

Well, she didn’t use the word interpretation.  At that question, asked before the NMAAHC reneged on its supposed desire to preserve the gazebo, my museum brain kicked in.  Why would the NMAAHC want to preserve the gazebo?  What does that say about their collecting mission?  What does it mean that they, as a history museum, would be purposely liaising with a community of activists that is exerting their power at this very moment?

For one, it’s ballsy.  The museum hasn't even opened yet, but they would be exercising an exceptionally powerful influence, in the name of the Smithsonian, to intercede and successfully preserve an object freighted with both emotional baggage and the logistical concerns of space, weathering, etc. that come with managing museum collections.

Besides that, the process of building a collection means taking into consideration a variety of factors that include, and are certainly not limited to: history, psychology, diversity, and, critically, availability.   By availability, I mean two things: 1) the simple fact of existence—do objects, documents, or other items exist to be collected that tell the stories a museum is interested in? and 2) will the people or institutions who currently hold these objects sign on to the mission of the museum and donate these objects to that institution? 

For museums that have not yet begun to interpret histories of their diverse communities, the problem may often be that they simply don’t have the collections items available to tell those stories in a credible way.  Though such objects once existed, the museum did not then pursue them, and no one interceded to collect or preserve them before their consignment to the rubbish pile.   If someone or some community did intercede, or saved items for personal enjoyment or interest, they may not understand why a museum would want to have them.  The act of approaching a museum staff to offer an object from a culture that is underrepresented by that institution may be tremendously intimidating.  Enthusiastic museum staffers may or may not understand how to respond in a way that gives respect to the donor and does justice to the significance of the object.

In this sense, the question of “worth” in collecting can very much function as a question about race and class.  Museums and their curators and educators may tend to avoid difficult stories of racial unrest when there is not an accompanying narrative of uplift, an inspiration or achievement in the face of tremendous prejudice or other difficulty.  This can be especially true in museums that carry a federal endorsement like the Smithsonian.  Phillip Morris, a columnist for Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, indicated the trouble with these oversights in his own discussion of the events surrounding the gazebo's preservation.  Though he says he is not advocating for preservation, he writes: “a case can be made that Tamir's story mixes coherently with museum artifacts depicting the extraordinary complexity of the African-American experience in the United States. That's a call for museum curators and historians.”  He’s right. It does.  The gazebo may be undesirable to its current community, but that doesn’t mean it should be torn down before a reasonable assessment of its potential role in history can be made.

And here’s what else: if the NMAAHC stood by its statement of interest in exploring options for preserving the gazebo, it would mean setting a standard for the value of artifacts related to stories like Tamir.  It would clearly state that black lives matter to museums and that artifacts of the movement and its precipitating tragedies belong in museum spaces to aid in educating visitors about how they do fit within historical legacies of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.  It would clearly mark museums, and especially the NMAAHC, as institutions that can be trusted to guard these artifacts and tell these stories.  That would be an example that should be set.  Since the NMAAHC backed off, it’s not that they can’t do that and it’s not that they won’t, but it could be much harder.