High Hopes for My Visit
I had been wanting to visit the NMAACC for a long time, especially because in the last few years, courtesy of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School's Kimbrough Scholars Program, I'd increasingly recognized the dangerous deficiencies and biases of my own American history education.* But I was also nervous about going, in much the same way I had been years earlier when I first visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. First of all, I was worried that I'd lack sufficient emotional fortitude to look at, and keep looking at, the images of lynching and other forms of violence a museum of African American history would have to present. Second of all, I really wanted the museum to be terrific.
There was so much I wanted the museum to do successfully. I wanted it to expand and "correct" the historical narrative where needed. I wanted it to lift the lost, nameless, and invisible out of oblivion and to make them visible, respected, and remembered. I wanted it to celebrate and honor the agency and resilience of African Americans--something I had learned so little about in school. I wanted it to stimulate conversations that might lead to transformed understandings, attitudes, and relationships--to freedom and justice for all in the America beyond the walls of the museum.
I know: it was really not fair of me to be asking so much of this museum--especially since I would be visiting it for only one day! How could any one institution be expected to help all Americans share equally, deliberately, and respectfully in being American? .
|"America the Beautiful" by David Hammons**|
Yes, my expectations were extremely high. But the museum actually met them--in a very particular way for me personally, and in a much more general way that's even more important.
My Personal Learning Goals Met
In the realm of expanding and "correcting" the historical narrative, the museum's "success" in my personal case built to some degree on my "preparation."
While watching Henry Louis Gates's recently televised documentary Reconstruction: America After the Civil War in the weeks before my visit, I had been struck by how quickly and effectively African Americans had exercised their rights to build schools, run for political office, and otherwise take advantage of the opportunities their freedom presented once the war was over.
Nothing in my Gone with the Wind-echoing formal education had taught me how poised to be free African Americans had been at this time in history, about how strategic they had been in exercising their freedom as soon as they had it. Frankly, I'd been taught a great deal about enslaved bodies and broken spirits--and virtually nothing about enslaved bodies and nurtured, unbroken spirits and strategic minds.
So I went into the museum with my own question about the history of African Americans' readiness for freedom. It proved to be a great anchoring question for me, though it didn't guide all of my learning that day.
Like so many visitors to the museum, I began on the bottom floor, in part of the museum dedicated to the earliest African American history. There, courtesy of the slave ship data*** provided on the museum's walls, I learned that the Portuguese and the Dutch transported the most Africans to the Americas and that Africans being transported on French ships were least likely to survive the Atlantic crossing. Someone wishing to escape from slavery would have the best chance of succeeding if s/he lived in Louisiana and could slip into the relatively impenetrable Bayou.
Meanwhile laws were being created and revised continually: interchange of all sorts between Africans and Native Americans needed to be discouraged legally to ensure European safety, dominance, and economic viability. Fugitive slave laws were also always in a similar kind of flux with the similar intentions of keeping people of African descent in "lawful" servitude.
This was the thematic story of deliberate oppression that I'd expected to see, and that I would have expected to see on the basis of my late-1960s-early-1970s formal education about African Americans as victims of oppression. But alongside it was the companion story I'd never been taught in school--the story of survival, patience, frustration, desire, and purpose, especially collective survival, patience, frustration, desire, and purpose.
This community story was just as old as the oppression story. The museum began telling it right away--in the context of describing the different kinds of daily lives enslaved people lived depending where they labored and what kind of work they did. In each of the regions, people routinely gathered, sometimes surreptitiously, for any number of reasons, including to worship, preserve culture, socialize, celebrate, be who they were collectively and individually when they weren't working.
Given my focus on the ideas of resiliency, organization, and community, I was especially moved by the Community Galleries on Level L3 of the museum, which I visited in the afternoon. I loved the photographs of the members of the various featured societies, organizations, and institutions; I was humbled and inspired by the collective drive and purpose of those who were determined to make and sustain change.
The More Important Way My Hopes for the NMAACC Were Fulfilled
So now that you know what I personally learned and enjoyed at the NMAACC, I must tell you that it was my observations of others that really made me love the museum and think highly of it. Visitors to the museum were so engaged, all in their different ways: some talked about how and why things worked and happened; others looked, read, and listened, almost oblivious to those around them looking silently or conversing softly. All around me, people seemed to be having an intense, important day, a day they would keep thinking about.
I admit it: I often eavesdrop when I'm in a museum. It's a habit I first developed from many years of taking students on field trips and wanting to know what they were paying attention to thinking about. I further developed it during my association with Project Zero's Making Learning Visible Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education: so much learning happens through the exchange of ideas. Therefore, teachers must listen carefully to student talk.
The quiet first took hold as a group of us prepared to enter the history galleries. Having been forewarned by a museum volunteer that we'd be without access to restrooms as we strolled the mile-long ascending path from the earliest parts of the history to the present day, we finally boarded the elevator, standing very close to one another.
We were so many, so different--and so very quiet. Among us were multi-generational family groups, name-tag-wearing students with their teachers, pairs of friends, people in wheelchairs with the friends or family members who were accompanying them, lone individuals like myself. No chatter. All of us waiting to begin. Who knew the many different things our silence signified?
But as we began walking through African American history--some of us taking right turns and then left turns, some of us taking left turns and then taking right turns, some of us gravitating toward the particular objects, videos, and signs that most interested us--those who'd come with others sometimes talked, often in hushed tones. When a pre-teen female student carrying a pink backpack quietly asked her friend carrying an identical pink backpack, "Did we study the Nat Turner Rebellion?" the answer she got was, "Yes, I think in the fourth grade." I wondered what the first girl had just learned about Nat Turner or the rebellion that had stimulated her interest. I wondered if the second girl felt that since they already had "done" Nat Turner, there was little need to think about him further.
A group of olive-skinned boys whose names suggested Middle Eastern heritage were more interested in the museum's artifacts than its signs and videos. When one boy, looking at the brick shown in the adjacent photograph, asked his friend, "Why is this here?" his friend replied, "It's history, dummy." When is a brick history, and when is a brick just a brick? It wasn't a dumb question at all.
I wished their teacher had overheard their exchange, but it's possible that she was involved in a conversation with her colleagues. Four separate times during my time on the history floors, I came across groups of teachers**** who were strategizing about how to share what they were seeing and learning with colleagues "back at school" who might never visit the museum. Some of the conversation involved questions about what on the museum web site might stimulate a discussion about revamping parts of the American history curriculum "back home." But some of the talk was about major ideas and concepts in the museum that were nowhere in the curriculum.
Elders too were talking, remembering having seen artifacts in their own pasts, or in family photos that were "somewhere." Sons and daughters were asking parents and grandparents questions about what they knew and when they knew it, if and what they remembered. Just beyond these hushed conversations, the silence dominated, evidence of people's absorption in what they were examining, even when they were part of groups that sometimes talked. Whatever was going on in people's brains and minds, clearly they were deeply engaged. I wondered what/if everyone was learning; I wondered what everyone was feeling.
If the history floors were predominantly quiet, the Sweet Home Cafe and the Culture Galleries were alive with the buzz and occasional yips of excited voices. In the Cafe, over food chosen from the various "African American food tradition" stations, families discussed what they'd seen that was interesting, puzzling, disturbing, needing to be explored further. In the Culture Galleries, especially in the sections featuring musical and other kinds of performance, smiles, laughter, and intense whispering and pointing revealed how much people loved what they were seeing, hearing, and recalling.
There were so many achievements and contributions to celebrate--great entertainment and serious thought and imagination conveyed in all art forms. Something for everyone, I thought--or hoped. All of this made me think of the challenge of curation that the museum as a whole represents.
A Question of What Perspectives Matter Most
Years ago when I was at the Holocaust Museum, I remembered wondering how non-Jews experienced the museum; I also wondered how their motivations for visiting it compared with my own. I had the same two questions about Jews who'd lost family members in the Holocaust, which I had not. So many visitors with different needs, wishes, and experiences.
So how successfully is the NMAACC responding to the expectations of its racially and culturally diverse visitors?***** And does this need ever conflict with museum's need to resonate especially with African American perspectives? How much is the museum actually helping visitors to embrace the idea of a diverse inclusive American as a strong, authentic America?
|Not at NMAACC, but still in the Smithsonian!|
* I had the occasion to write about my eighth grade history class in a blog post I wrote in August 2017.
** David Hammons' painting is part of the "Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975" exhibit currently on View at that Smithsonian American Art Museum.
*** Where did you cry? Crafting Categories, Narratives, and Affect through Exhibit Design - Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-repeating-background-pattern-in-the-Ships-of-the-Trade-section-shown-in-gold-type_fig2_331774953 [accessed 17 May, 2019]
Figure 3: The repeating background pattern in the 'Ships of the Trade' section, shown in gold type, lists the names of slave ships, their country of origin, voyage date, and the ratio of enslaved who boarded to those who survived the journey. One of several instances of 'massing techniques' used in the History Galleries, this also illustrates the dehumanisation of treating humans as cargo. Photograph by Corinne A. Kratz.
**** I actually stopped and joined the fourth group briefly to tell them that a teacher group across the room was having a conversation similar to their own.
***** I also gave some thought to what Americans would choose never to visit the NMAACC, even if they could visit it.