For the meeting, I was asked a bunch of questions.
§What is the exhibition about? Why is it important to tell this story? How does this idea relate to current scholarship?
§ How does this exhibition address NMAAHC’s mission? How does this exhibition address NMAAHC’s strategic priorities?
§ What should visitors come away with? What is the nature of the educational experience being offered?
§ Does the exhibition engage diverse audiences with respect to ethnicity, age, interests and other factors?
§ Do you anticipate public or professional disagreements on this topic? If so how can they be addressed?
§ Are collateral components being proposed (publications, Web site, education/public programs)?
§ What are the important stories and events that support the themes?
§ What are the “must have” objects, graphics, and photos?
§ What are the major themes (4 or less)?
§ What current materials apply to this subject matter, and how does the research team verify that the information is reliable and accurate?
§ Is an Advisory Board needed due to controversial subject matter, or the size of the exhibit?
§ Which ideas are best expressed through words?
§ Do visitors find the story compelling and expressive of NMAAHC’s mission and priorities?
§ Does the target audience find the topics, themes and approaches to be interesting?
§ Does the exhibition title communicate the subject well?
§ What is/are our target audience/s for the exhibit’s educational components?
§ What are the national educational standards that we will use to measure our success?
§ How will visitors learn?
§ How will the ideas unfold in three-dimensional space?
§ Which ideas are best expressed in three-dimensional space?
§ Which ideas are best expressed by two-dimensional visuals?
§ Which ideas are best expressed through words?
§ Which ideas are best expressed through AV?
I gave it a shot with the following proposal and trying to answer the questions above in the process. Be kind as you look; I never created an exhibition before.
Title: Slavery and Resistance
Fundamentally, I have two ideas for an exhibition on the designated topic. Only one has been thought out, so I will present this one and discuss the second if you like (this adds in debates about slavery, the controversy about the ending of slavery and the aftermath of slavery). Note: I never got the second because no interest was expressed on the first; in fact, I never heard back from the museum, put the file away and did not find it until 6 years later [today])
Proposal 1 - 2008/2009
The first idea involves four interrelated themes (initial enslavement in Africa, treatment of slaves, resistance to slavery and “a day in the life”) and I have outlined how/where they should be located in the exhibition – a rough sketch is provided.
Entering the room, one is confronted with a wall that sends you to either the left or the right.
On the wall is a map of Africa, the Caribbean and the United States. With flashes of light, individual lines appear intermittently, which represents individual slave ships. Accompanying each line is the number of slaves on board. A cumulative total for the whole slave trade is shown in the Caribbean and the United States – as the two main points of interest to the viewing audience (other locales could be included if necessary). Over the course of the display, the number of individuals in Africa is decreased with the increases accrued in the countries to which slaves were taken.
On the back of the African enslavement wall, is a map of where and how many slaves existed within the US (this type of information exists at the county level). I imagine that this would be an interactive screen and as one touched a particular county, information about the specific locale (plantation), people and activities would come up. This part also involves the second interactive element as it would invite individuals to provide information that they had about individual slaves, plantations, activities which could then be added to the display (this component should be provided with each of the displays discussed below).
The Treatment of Slaves
To the right of the display is a wall regarding treatment. I envision seven large panels that identify what happened to slaves during their experience with “the peculiar institution”; these are meant to illustrate the diverse punishments that were directed against them. In particular, these display: 1) sale, 2) beating/whipping/torture, 3) rape, 4) divisions (e.g., “house” from “field”, male from female, old from young), 5) deculturation (e.g., taking of names, language, self), 6) restrictions (e.g., living quarters, plantation size) and 7) the church (e.g., praying to a white god and accentuating passivity). Each panel will include relevant definitions, descriptions, representative images and rotating examples. I would also like some sense of the frequency (e.g., out of every 100 days there are x number of activities). If one touches the screen (a third interactive element), individuals are directed to additional layers of information. As the various elements here are tied to physical objects (a fourth interactive element), it would be interesting to have them included on the panel (e.g., a whip, a for sale sign and so forth).
Resistance to Slavery
On the opposite wall, there is a wall regarding resistance. Again, I envision seven panels which display distinct forms of activity that would be undertaken by African Americans against the institution of slavery: 1) work slowdowns, 2) sabotage, 3) escape via the underground railroad, 4) the establishment of maroon communities, 5) rebellion, 6) politicized incompetence/”laziness” and 7) the church (e.g., preaching about redemption and black liberation). I think it would also be interesting to have some discussion about continuing certain practices associated with African culture/life while in America. Again, on the various panels would be relevant definitions, descriptions, representative images and rotating examples. If one touches the screen (a fifth interactive element), individuals are directed to additional layers of information.
Between these two displays, I would suggest that a half-life size chess set be placed – to represent the tactical battle of oppression and survival that took place during slavery, embodied in the two walls on opposite sides of the room. On the white side of the board, I would like stereotypical characters: the master, the mistress (representing the king and queen, respectively), the overseer (the knight) and so forth. I would like two rows of pawns – representing the coercive advantage held by the slaver owners. On the black side, I would like about 4-6 pieces: house slaves (male and female) as well as field slaves (male and female), perhaps like the characters developed by Michael Ray Charles. On this side, there are no pawns. The individual pieces are movable (introducing a sixth interactive element) and on the board itself, there are sayings that are prompted when pieces are inserted into place. These identify specific phrases from slave narratives or quotations from whites from the time.
“A Day in the Life”
The back wall provides the “sun to sun” display. This identifies by the hour how a slave would lead their life on a typical day. Ideally this information would be on a timeline from left to right or on a circular display, suggesting a clock. To the side of the display (in the various corners), there would be a discussion of how much slaves produced, how things were made and how much this was valued. This would provide an indication of what was owed to slaves in terms of credit for developing the US.
There are several lessons from such an exhibition: 1) slavery was global, 2) slavery was all over the United States, 3) slavery and resistance moved hand in hand, 4) although outnumbered blacks fought back continuously, 5) slavery was extremely hard, and 6) American society obtained a great deal from the blood, sweat and tears from African American slaves.
I imagine that there are also several items that could be sold at the exhibition, generating an additional connection as well as income: e.g., cards of enslavement and resistance where specific instances are detailed; a slavery chess set (with all the pieces); maps of the global slave trade, US slavery as well as a listing of slave rebellions; and, a book which brings together all of the research behind the exhibition.
My Attempt at a Display
There are four legs upon which this museum will stand:
- The first is to create an opportunity for those that care about African American culture to explore and revel in this history.
- Equally important is the opportunity to help all Americans see just how central African American history is for all of us. The museum will use African American history and culture as a lens into what it means to be an American.
- Additionally, the museum will use African American culture as a means to help all Americans see how their stories, their histories, and their cultures are shaped and informed by international considerations and how the struggle of African Americans has impacted freedom struggles around the world.
- Finally, as a 21st century institution, the museum must be a place of collaboration. We must be a truly national museum that reaches beyond Washington to engage new audiences and to collaborate with the myriad of museums and educational institutions, both nationally and internationally.
Ultimately, the National Museum of African American History and Culture should be a place of meaning, of memory, of reflection, of laughter, and of hope. It should be a beacon that reminds us of what we were; what challenges we still face; and point us towards what we can become.
It's possible that my exhibition was a bit too negative and depressing. I was once told that America did not really like to hear bad stories and they only like winners. It might be that taking individuals through the horrors as well as triumphs might have been a bit too much. Regardless, I would have gone to see this.
Of course, being struck with the idea, I then tried to embed the idea above into a larger research project:
Strange Fruit, Stranger Tree
The history of African Americans is filled with instances of discriminatory as well as violent behavior directed against them. While this much is commonly understood, it is not exactly clear how frequent these activities were undertaken nor how intense they were across space and time. Additionally, it is not exactly clear how these activities influenced African Americans across domains: economically, politically, socially and psychologically. The objective of this project is to assemble and make available, within one user-friendly locale, diverse publically accessible information about anti-black behavior from slavery to the present. These are either stored on individual webpages, published in the Appendices of books or simply in paper-format in researcher’s offices.
Specifically, this project seeks to understand what was done to African Americans and how they were impacted by these efforts. A later phase of the project will seek to understand how blacks attempted to resist these activities.
Strategy and Impact
This project will assemble a tremendous amount of information and put it into a format that would be popularly accessible as well as readily available for rigorous analysis across both space and time. For example, the projects will bring together information about what counties were engaged in slavery, what took place during slavery itself (e.g., rape, beatings and slave codes), what took place after the civil war (e.g., outrages, race riots, black codes and then Jim Crow laws as well as lynching), what took place in the criminal justice system (i.e., legal executions), what took place in the 1960s (i.e., protest policing of black dissidents) as well as what has happened more recently (e.g., church burnings and hate crimes). The project will also create an online depository of personal experiences with discrimination (starting historically like the Tulsa, Oklahoma riot and moving forward). This collection will allow individuals to better understand what took place throughout the United States as well as rigorously examine what accounts for the variation and stability in anti-black activity over time.
The project will have numerous outputs including a webpage containing all the collected research. Secondly a traveling, interactive exhibit will be developed with the more provocative materials discovered in the collection. The digital exhibition would be widely used during black history month. Perhaps the new African American Museum on the mall in Washington D.C. would host the exhibition during the remainder of the year or a version of it. Lastly, the project will lead to academic articles and educational text books, including a children’s book.
Still collecting the data for this one. Inspired by Ben Affleck's recent attempts to get his families history with slavery suppressed, I might just release that listing of all slave holding families in the US. You can always find a listing of the largest slaveholders but never everybody - at least in a downloadable database. We have a ways to go but slowly it comes together.
(Don't forget to hit me back if you see any of this stuff in circulation - it takes a village after all)