What the African American Museum can learn from Holocaust and Indian museums

February 17, 2012

We expect a lot from museums today, particularly those showcased on the Mall, the single greatest gallery of America’s treasures. Those institutions should display the most important objects and tell the most compelling stories. They should tell us something new, while also showing us something about ourselves.

As the National Museum of African American History and Culture prepares to break ground Wednesday on the Mall, its director, Lonnie Bunch, is mindful that no matter how his exhibitions take shape before the anticipated completion in 2015, he’ll hear from critics when the doors finally open. Every museum director does. Some have been harsher than others: Complaints about the National Museum of the American Indian — that its displays are confusing, that it shrank from depicting the genocide of native peoples — dogged the institution after the building’s 2004 opening.

By contrast, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has been roundly praised for its exhibits, which are at once comprehensive and intimate. You shouldn’t want to immerse yourself in one of humanity’s grisliest atrocities, but this museum makes that improbable phenomenon happen. And can leave you changed by it.

What can Bunch learn from these most recent additions to the Mall?

First lesson: “Just how complex this endeavor is,” said Bunch in a phone interview earlier this week.

The most important takeaway from the Holocaust Museum, he said, is “the importance of personalizing big issues and grand tragedies.”

Bunch said he especially admires how that museum presents the mass extermination of Jews and other groups in Europe by bringing it down to a human scale. Before entering the permanent exhibit, visitors are encouraged to pick up identification cards that relate brief histories of people who were persecuted by the Nazis. Throughout the museum, the human toll is illustrated not only through archival films and Nazi artifacts but with victims’ family photographs, their toys, prison uniforms, even piles of their shoes.

“What the Holocaust Museum does well is it says: It is hard to imagine the loss of 6 million people,” said Bunch, “but it’s easier to imagine the loss of those five or those 10.”

Borrowing from this, the African American Museum may look at slavery “through the lens of a specific plantation, the people who lived on it and their challenges, so you really begin to care about individuals,” he said.

The brutality of slave auctions may be driven home through the bill of sale of a single girl, with its description of what she looked like and who her family was.

Ralph Appelbaum, the exhibit designer credited with helping to make the Holocaust Museum a compelling destination since its opening in 1993, will also design the African American Museum’s exhibits. Bunch said he asked Appelbaum’s team to deliver “the best of the storytelling narrative of the Holocaust Museum.”

Sara J. Bloomfield, who has worked for the Holocaust Museum for 25 years, and has been its director since 1999, says the extraordinary impact can be traced back to its founding director, the late Jeshajahu Weinberg, who had a theater background, and Martin Smith, a documentary filmmaker and one of the museum’s designers.

“They were storytelling geniuses,” she said in a recent interview. “They understood that the story was going to drive the experience, unlike other museums where the collection drives the experience.”

That approach led to extreme selectivity in what is displayed. Just a few of the photos are life-size, so at a couple of surprising moments you find yourself looking right into the eyes of someone who lived through the events. Graphic images are shown in only three locations, behind privacy walls. Visitors can enter a boxcar. But rigorous restraint is everywhere in evidence. The designers didn’t want walls full of text and cases of artifacts to detract from the core message — that we must all bear witness and act against evils that can yet arise.

“People could get overwhelmed by the totality of it and the horror of it and the statistics,” Bloomfield said. “They wanted people thinking, ‘This could have happened in a world I can identify with. . . . I can grasp the breakdown of society that allowed this to happen.’

“Why do people still watch Shakespeare? I think it’s because he speaks to what it means to be human,” she said. “I think that’s what our museum tries to do as well.”

This is what Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian, is hoping to get across as well, though for his institution, this is a new thrust.

“We should be trying to persuade our visitors that these stories are their stories as well,” said Gover. “No matter what color you are or where you’re from, these stories influence the life you live now.”

That broader relevance has been missing from his museum, but Gover, who in 2007 took over from founding director W. Richard West Jr., is working to fix that. Plans are under way to replace the permanent exhibits with interim displays by the museum’s 10th anniversary in 2014. New permanent installations will open in 2016 or 2017, according to Gover.

This is an effort to correct an imperfect beginning — a beginning that art historian Judith Ostrowitz calls “a setup for trying to do something very complicated that couldn’t please everyone.”

“Their mandate was to represent every aboriginal group in the Western Hemisphere that they had objects for,” said Ostrowitz, author of “Interventions: Native American Art for Far-Flung Territories.” “It was a vast number of groups.”

The resulting displays — disjointed, somewhat scattershot — pleased the native communities but left critics frustrated with the lack of scholarship and the public confused about what central ideas the museum was trying to impart.

Critics also questioned why the museum focused on celebrating survival, with numerous display pods about contemporary life in various tribes, while it undercut the very history these groups have survived: the shared legacy of genocide. There is no prominent space given to the prolonged efforts to kill and dispossess native peoples.

“The message that ‘we are still here’ is an important one to convey,” wrote Native American scholar Amy Lonetree, an associate professor of American studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz, in an essay titled “Missed Opportunities at the National Museum of the American Indian.” “But by failing to tell the hard truths of colonialism, this message loses its most important context and the primary reason why the message of survival is so amazing and worthy of celebration.”

Gover acknowledges that a sense of righteous anger or catharsis is absent.

“Those critics are correct,” said Gover. “On the other hand, I think as the Indian communities that were featured in the museum thought about what they wanted to say, that is not the message they wanted to send.”

He’ll replace the individual tribal pods with exhibits that focus on the thriving civilizations in the Americas long before European contact, and on the fact that European contact with the Americas was a world-changing event.

But, Gover said, “we are not in any way stepping away from the idea” that tribal communities must be involved.

This is precisely what the African American Museum’s Bunch says is the major lesson he takes from that institution: the importance of community collaboration. In a museum devoted to history and culture, the material cannot be interpreted without involving the communities from which it came.

And then some.

“I probably did it much more broadly” even than the American Indian Museum, said Bunch. “I spent two years reaching out to a variety of stakeholders, non-African Americans, government people, corporate folks.”

Bunch won’t say that the American Indian Museum’s gingerly approach to a painful past was in his mind as he thought about how to deal with slavery and lynching. However, he said,“what I realized as a historian is you can’t tell the story of resilience and uplift without understanding what the struggles were. . . . We’re going to have to illuminate all the dark corners of the American experience in ways that we’re not always comfortable doing.”

To that end, the original casket of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American whose brutal murder in 1955 became a catalyst in the civil rights movement, will be part of the African American Museum’s collection. (Till’s body was exhumed in 2004 for identification purposes, and reburied in a new casket.)

Yet however much he heeds the experiences of his neighbors on the Mall, Bunch says he knows that chances are, his museum won’t please everyone. And dealing with that is another lesson he takes from the others:

“The key to a successful museum director is stamina, more than anything else” he said. “You’ve got to have a thin enough skin to realize that no single leader has a monopoly on wisdom, but you’ve got to have a thick enough skin to handle the criticism that you know will come.”

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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