While this blog entry does not focus strictly on experiences from my internship, it could not be more relevant to my thoughts and focuses of late. After discussing the interpretation of sensitive information with Heather, I ended up visiting the International Civil Rights Museum. This trip could not have been more perfect timing! After discussing the theory, I got to see the results of undertaking such an endeavor. In my talks with Heather, she mentioned being transparent as a method for presenting sensitive topics/images to the public. She gave the example of the Museum of the New South in Charlotte. The mere topic is touchy enough, but certain subtopics within the museum cause particular alarm. For instance, the museum includes pictures of lynching. As a student of history I believe this is the correct thing to do as these terrible events are indeed part of our history. However, these images may not be something that parents want their children to see. Since the museum still wanted to include these images as part of their exhibit, they simply put a cover over the photos with a disclaimer on or around the cover stating the images underneath were graphic and the viewer must take full responsibility for looking underneath the covers. This enabled the museum to make such history available to those who wished to learn about the topic without angering those who did not want to or were not ready to view such things. This trip would also give me a chance to take notice of other important aspects of creating exhibits, such as the space, information given, and the ways this information was given to patrons. With this in mind, I went to the International Civil Rights Museum.
My initial reaction was to notice what information the museum included in their exhibit and how they went about arranging this information. The lobby of the museum was open and airy, colored with blacks and grays and whites with a welcome desk in the center, a gift shop on the right, and a hallway on the left where the tours begin. In the lobby there were a few large panels, similar to panels that I have seen in WRA exhibits. I am not sure what the material is, but it is similar to the material used to make banners. These panels were hanging perpendicular to the floor and had both text and images arrange in an attractive manner so as to not overwhelm the reader too much of one or the other. Our tour guide was a young woman who thankfully had a booming voice, as our group was rather large and ended up growing during the tour. We began by examining an excerpt from the constitution declaring our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and what this really meant (white landowning males are the only people who have the right to these liberties). We then went into the “Hall of Shame.” This was a particularly important room for me as it held many images that were graphic. The tour guide stopped our group prior to entering the exhibit to make sure that everyone knew what lay behind the doors and giving them an option not to view the Hall of Shame if they had any reservations. I thought this was beautifully done and the way the images in the hall were laid out—each picture broken into a couple of pieces arranged closely together and raised so that there was light behind and around them—naturally drew the eye… as if more effort was needed. The images were naturally horrific. They included lynchings, people who had been beaten in various ways, and even a picture of Emmett Till. I couldn’t even make out his face. I wanted this, though. I wanted the discomfort and pain and sadness. I wanted the trauma of seeing things as they really happened and not just the whitewashed version of history that I was taught as a child.
As we moved on, we saw a video recreating the night before the famous sit-in of the A&T Four. We also saw a recreation of the dorm room where they planned their event (complete with authentic furniture donated by the school), the actual bar and stool and decorations of the Woolworth where the sit-in too place (it was all arranged as it had been in 1960), and went through a maze of walls and panels discussing different aspects of life and segregation. The tour guide made sure to point out the claustrophobic nature of the small space we were in and how this small, confusing, twisting maze of a space was much like segregation—complicated and hard to navigate. I enjoyed the fact that she pointed this out. Although it was impossible not to be aware of the confined space, I probably would not have made this connection immediately. Afterward, however, I doubt there was a single person in the group who did not think of this association while attempting to weave, scoot, squeeze, and inch around each other. I also thought it was a brilliant use of space. Although the museum had plenty of artifacts and literature, it took the experience to a whole new level that included the patron in a way that perhaps they didn’t sign up for, but that was effective in conveying the message on a deeper level than may have been experienced otherwise.
I thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience. I found it to be both instructive, humbling, and—dare I say—encouraging in these times of uncertainty. Although museum curating is not technically the job of an archivist, the museum was nonetheless fitting in its timing as the topic of sensitive information was still burning strongly in my mind. Besides, although my interest lies with archiving, a degree in Library Science opens the door to museum work for me as well. Perhaps my interests will develop or grow in these next few years. Regardless of whether I decide to pursue archiving or museum curating, the International Civil Rights Museum holds tremendous value to my understanding of collecting, interpreting, and displaying information to create a meaningful story.