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America needs its history museums more than ever

15 June 2017

Last month, tourists found a noose within a gallery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C. The museum, which opened in 2016, joined a growing list of U.S. cultural institutions seeing hate and bias incidents since the 2016 election. The Southern Poverty Law Center has received reports of more than 1,300 hate incidents between the November 2016 presidential election and early February 2017. Hate symbols, including nooses and swastikas, have been found at universities and schools, port terminals and construction sites.

The noose, of course, is a sickening and very specific ‘symbol of extreme violence for African Americans,’ as NMAAHC director Lonnie G. Bunch III stated. The loops of rope are a direct evocation of Jim Crow-era lynchings, when white supremacists murdered thousands of African Americans in the South and terrorised far more. A few days after a noose was found in a tree outside the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, another was found in the Era of Segregation 1786–1986 gallery. Of the latter incident, a Smithsonian spokeswoman told BuzzFeed News that ‘it’s clearly a message to the museum.’

It is hard to imagine an act more depraved than planting a symbol of hate anywhere. Yet the incident at NMAAHC, a museum celebrating and preserving African American stories that have been at best neglected and more often violently oppressed within American history, carries an additional valence. The museum opened with great fanfare in the waning months of the Obama presidency. Entry to the museum, while free, remains ticketed because of the high volume of visitors, and people routinely tweet their joy at receiving entry passes after months of waiting. When I visited the museum for the first time early this year, I was struck by the great number of African American families I saw, with older members in wheelchairs pushed by grandchildren, all taking in the painful and joyous history recorded in the exhibits and artefacts. NMAAHC is not just a history museum; it’s a monument to lives lost and violence done, and a testament to perseverance and community.

The noose is, without doubt, a racist attempt to break down this community. Many historians and pundits believe the recent rise in hate incidents is directly tied to racist rhetoric used during the Trump campaign and since. But the NMAAHC incident can also be tied to the Trump administration’s assault on history. In an age of ‘alternative facts,’ when the president can imply that Frederick Douglass is alive and claim that no one has ever asked why there was an American Civil War, the mission of the history museum, and particularly this history museum, is charged with political import. Moreover, in the time of the 24-hour news cycle, when a 140-character tweet may precipitate a global diplomatic crisis, the museum’s imperative to catalogue and make sense of long histories and untidy narratives becomes ever more radical, and necessary.

With this imperative come difficulties. In the 1980s, the French historian Pierre Nora described how modern lieux de mémoire, or ‘sites of memory,’ like museums and archives, signal the eradication of traditional memory by history. For Nora, history obliterates the past in its attempts to organise it. More than 30 years after Nora and others problematised the writing of history and its preservation in museums, there remains a chance that in archiving a variegated cultural experience, that experience is homogenised. A museum cannot be everything to everyone, but it can legitimise experiences in ways that make some people uncomfortable. To place a noose in a museum of African American history, alongside the whips of slavemasters and the casket of Emmett Till, is to co-opt an ugly history that the museum forcefully confronts and contextualises. (Some commentators have argued that the noose found in the gallery should go into the museum’s permanent collection as an artefact of contemporary racism.)

The event justifies the museum’s existence. And in the Trump era, when facts are under assault, museums may serve as physical reminders that history is more than a story of the past; it’s a story of our culture’s collective values and a force for evil or (one hopes) good.