Leaving a noose in the segregation galleries of the National Museum of African American History and Culture is an example of what might be called asymmetrical symbolism.
With a small amount of effort, someone managed to send an extraordinary message of hatred with the rope when it was discovered inside the museum Wednesday. Like terrorism, asymmetrical symbolism can’t be fought with conventional means. It presents us with a paradox and few good options for response. To ignore it is to accept a world in which this kind of ugliness becomes normal and more frequent. But there is also the risk of unintentionally dignifying it. The good work, the message, the historical wisdom embodied in the galleries where the noose was left can’t be undone by such a small-minded and grotesque gesture.
One has to acknowledge the historical power of the object — a reference to lynching and, by extension, the use of racial terror to dehumanize and control African Americans — while also affirming the far larger and redemptive power of the institution that was vandalized. In a sense, it requires ordinary people to think like museum curators: to search out the meaning and history of an object while placing it in its proper context.
And so, perhaps there is an appropriate asymmetrical response to this asymmetrical act of hate: accession into the museum’s collection.
This isn’t likely to happen. Linda St. Thomas, a Smithsonian spokeswoman, points out that the noose (one of two found in or near a Smithsonian museum this week) is in the possession of the Park Police and instrumental to a criminal investigation. Incorporating it into the museum would also set unwanted precedents and give hatemongers unwanted power over determining the content of the museum’s collection.
And some would no doubt see incorporating it in the Smithsonian holdings as a kind of honor paid to the object itself. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Smithsonian does, a misunderstanding worth pondering for a moment.
The power of the galleries at the African American Museum focusing on racism and segregation is inseparable from the ugliness of the objects they contain. To their great credit, museum curators were fearless about incorporating repellent and even explosive reminders of racism into the collection, from racist figurines to a Ku Klux Klan robe. The presence of these objects is determined by their importance to the larger narrative of African American history, not by any wish to honor them through affiliation with the museum as an institution.
The museum deflates the symbolic power of the object without diminishing its historical importance. It is frozen in the current moment, detached from its original purpose and neutered as a living symbol of hatred. Yet it retains its power to shock the conscience.
The power of museums to do this — to neutralize without minimizing or denying a legacy of pain — is beyond extraordinary, especially in today’s new economy of visual inundation and social media environments that reward both the giving and taking of offense. A thoughtful museum that confronts history honestly is like the control rod inserted into a nuclear reaction, absorbing and nullifying rampant energies.
And that suggests another asymmetry. The perpetrator of the noose display likely imagined the act simply as a defacing of an institution associated with racial equality or harmony. But whoever did this brought the noose to one of the few institutions left in the country that can annihilate its power.
That doesn’t mean that the act isn’t connected to a long history of domestic terrorism, and it doesn’t mean we should mute our outrage. But it does allow us to acknowledge the puniness of the intent along with the power of the symbol. And it reinforces the power of the institution that was targeted.
Accessioning the noose would also affirm what the museum’s director, Lonnie Bunch, said in a statement: “Today’s incident is a painful reminder of the challenges that African Americans continue to face.” It is another historical artifact, like the ones already in the collection, and an artifact that clearly demolishes any argument that the racism is all in the past.
Rex Ellis, the museum’s associate director for curatorial affairs, doesn’t dismiss the idea of accessioning the object, though it could open “a Pandora’s box” of conflicting and unintentional messages. “It is an intriguing idea,” he says, but not a decision he would take without a long conversation with other curators and museum leaders.
That process — the conversation among curators, the parsing of symbolism and engagement with the museum’s purpose — would in itself deflate some of the object’s symbolic power. It would counter primitive hate with thoughtful engagement.
Would accessioning it give copycat symbolic terrorists power over determining not just the content of the collection, but the larger conversation? Perhaps not, if the museum made a clear statement that, as it has in the past and as it does with other artifacts, it collects strategically. It doesn’t accession every protest sign or every political button or every memento of the larger cultural contributions of the African American community.
Copycats needn’t bother with more nooses. The museum has what it needs, which is proof of an ongoing history of cultural violence, and that shameful object has already begun its permanent transmogrification into a museum piece.