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America’s protests are making history. Museums are documenting that in real time.


Protestors rally at the National African American Museum of History and Culture on June 6. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

Museums can often be slow to respond to current events, a benefit for a vocation that’s focused more on the past than the present.

But amid the ongoing protests against police violence and systemic racism, institutions nationwide are recognizing a unique urgency, and they’re responding accordingly — with dozens now rushing to chronicle and contextualize American history, right as it’s being made.

“History isn’t just about keeping records of random events,” said Aaron Bryant, a photography and social protest historian at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). “It’s really about documenting and evaluating the evolution of human progress and our humanity. This moment would be a part of that story.”

To that end, the NMAAHC, though closed like other museums because of the coronavirus pandemic, is asking protesters to digitally upload protest-related pictures, videos and audio recordings and hold on to physical objects such as signs, T-shirts and artwork for future donation. The New-York Historical Society, meanwhile, has begun collecting flyers and signs from the protests to be added to its History Responds initiative, alongside added items from the covid-19 pandemic. And the Houston Museum of African American Culture (HMAAC), in George Floyd’s hometown, is one of many institutions deploying social media to garner submissions, asking users to #preservetheculture through photos and stories documenting their communities.


Mary Elliott, center, a curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture and Tsione Wolde-Michael, right, a curator with the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History look at signage on a wall along H Street NW in Washington, DC. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

“It’s rare to be so aware of a significant moment when you’re living through it, but this is a season of vast change,” Peggy Monahan, director of content development at the Oakland Museum of California, told Artnet News.

Among those changes: a reconsideration, in books, the media, museums and elsewhere, of the way that America’s stories are told.

At the Smithsonian, Bryant says he’s focused on allowing historically marginalized voices to shape the narrative of the demonstrations. Tina Burnside, a civil rights attorney and curator for the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery (MAAHMG), says such an approach for museums is crucial.

“A lot of times, when historical moments are told, they’re usually told from the perspective of white people,” Burnside said. “They’re the ones writing the narratives, even if it happens to African Americans, so it's very important to document the voices of black people that are ignored or often not heard.”

The MAAHMG, located in the protests’ crucible of Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed by police May 25, will showcase two new exhibits on racism in the state when it reopens next month.

The first will be a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of a 1920 Duluth lynching of three black men: Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie. The second will be an interactive exhibit on the Floyd memorial in Minneapolis, filled with protester interviews and a series of photographs from the site. Burnside says a few other projects are in the works, too, including an installation of symbols and messages from the plywood boards that have covered up local businesses’ windows during the protests.

The exhibits will further the overarching mission of the museum — the first of its kind in Minnesota — to open visitors’ eyes both to the deep injustices African Americans have faced in the state and to their countless contributions to it.

“Minnesota has always been known as a very progressive state, but beneath that progressive exterior, there have been a lot of racial problems, and it hasn't been dealt with,” Burnside said. “I want people to start to really try to understand what has caused this movement ⁠— the problems, the disparities, the pain, the emotion, and why people are reacting the way that they are ⁠— and not to casually dismiss it, but really try to understand what is going on so that we can move forward to work on solutions.”

That fuller racial context is in demand and, Bryant says, critical: To him, the demonstrations and unrest feel like history repeating itself, giving the nation a prime opportunity for honest conversations that can help it evolve.

With that in mind, the NMAAHC launched a free online portal called “Talking About Race” on May 31 to “help people explore issues of race, racism and racial identity.” In it, users can dive into topics such as “Bias,” “Being Antiracist” and “Historical Foundations of Race” through words, graphics, TED Talks, discussion prompts and more.

Other museums are taking on similar roles. Early this month, the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, added a resource guide on its website to connect visitors to dozens of organizations fighting for racial justice; the Oakland Museum is highlighting its own list, sourced by staff, of local and national groups to which visitors can donate in support of black lives.


The African American Museum of Iowa. (African American Museum of Iowa)

Some museums have even become targets for generosity themselves. The African American Museum of Iowa, located in Cedar Rapids, received a huge influx of donations that executive director LaNisha Cassell, in an interview with a local television station, attributed to people looking for direct ways to support the black community.

“This is a clear message that what we do matters to communities across the state,” Cassell said in a statement.

The work will also matter, museum leaders hope, to the country at large, too.

“Every single one of us is responsible for contributing in some way to shaping our democracy,” said Bryant. “Every one of us is responsible for telling our own stories, and every single one of us has a responsibility in shaping history.”

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