Thursday, February 5, 2015

When Capes and Cloaks Go On Display

History is messy. There is no easy way around that. Museums and other public sites have to take that messy history and present it in a way that is compartmentalized (often by space, whether it is wall space, room space, or case space). These places have to present all of this in a manner that is accessible and makes sense (often the linear story- this happened, then this, then this...). And, of course, collection items should be included (the "stuff" is important! people like stuff!) to help visually tell the story.


I meandered through the Tennessee State Museum the other day; I knew they had their Reconstruction Era exhibit out (I pass the building on foot several times a week and they have a banner advertising such). "What is to Become of the People: The Civil War and Reconstruction in Tennessee" will be on display until June. I also knew that the museum had Ku Klux Klan regalia in the collection and years ago (possibly even as an exercise as a graduate student) I had a conversation about whether or not it would be a good idea to display this robe. No, controversy. Yes, education. No, it represents a poor part of our history. Yes, it can ignite a dialogue. There is no doubt in my mind that there was plenty of conversations about this amongst museum staff in planning meetings for this exhibit. So when I went through the exhibit, I was entirely intrigued if and how they would handle this part of their collection and story.

It did not occur to me that the title of exhibit did not say "Reconstruction" outright. Initially, I was confused why the first two rooms talked about life leading up to the war and then life during the war. Ok, so the TSM decided it needed to talk about the war to contextualize the Reconstruction. In the third-ish room, images and text finally gets around to Reconstruction-y stuff, including a replicated display of a schoolroom for newly free people of color. (Remember? Stuff. People like stuff. Chalkboards count as stuff.) There is information about the struggles for newly-freed folks, for poor white folks, for isolated populations, and rural places.

As I turned the corner to the almost-final room, I saw it. While I knew exactly what it was from afar, I tried to pretend I did not know what that garment represented. It was my own attempt at pretending to be a visitor.


I read some of the panels of the walls, first. How was the museum going to treat this portion of Reconstruction? The panels included scenes of some of the violence like the contemporary newspapers.

Caption reads: "Scenes in Memphis, Tennessee, during the riot --
Shooting down negroes on the morning of May 2, 1866. -- [Sketched by A.R.K.]"
Titles like "Epidemic of Violence" and "The Politics of Terror" hovered above printed paragraphs on the wall. There were some illustrative stories and a few statistics. The text in one panel states that while there is no sure way to know, the 1868 Tennessee legislative committee tasked with investigating the crimes of the Klan estimated that "from March through August of that year, the Klan had murdered an average of one person a day." And then when you look at the associated display, there is this:


The Klan robe, a photo of a Klansmen, a political cartoon, and a few associated pieces (including a KKK pin that acknowledged Nathan Bedford Forrest as a leader) are displayed with accompanying informational text. In the corner of the basement of the state museum is displayed one of the most atrocious, festering, blistering scars in our nation's history, brazenly quiet. I want to applaud the museum for putting it out, but I also hang my head in how it just leaves this whole issue wide open with neither provocation nor questions. Missed potential by a public institution, yet again!

While thinking about what was there, what was missing, and what maybe could have been included to strengthen this exhibit, I wandered about the room to see what other items were on display. I saw this:


What is it, you ask? Why, it is Mary Bedford's cape! Who is Mary Bedford? Why, she is Nathan Bedford Forrest's wife! Who is Nathan Bedford Forrest? I'll try to be objective here: murderer, slave trader, racist, and wait for it, considered the first leader (possibly founder) of the Ku Klux Klan. That's right, one of the more notorious white supremacy groups that terrorized folks (mostly folks of color) after the American Civil War. So actually, an appropriate term that I can apply to Forrest is "terrorist." He was an American born-and-bred terrorist. I have tried to rack through every potential reason of why displaying this cloak would be appropriate and I can't find any reason. (Maybe because it is "stuff" and people like "stuff"). The text talks about how Forrest bought this for Mary in New York when he was president of a railroad in 1870. There is no connection to this piece and other things on display (including the Governor Brownlow's inauguration jacket).

This room contains very distinct fibers woven in very distinct ways. These fibers were cut and sewn in manners to portray very specific things. A mask like this is meant to instill fear while allowing the person wearing it to act in full-cowardice mode:


The fancy cape was designed to show off wealth (mass-produced clothing had not happened, yet... let me assure you that she was not wearing any version of a "knock-off brand"). Completely from a logical standpoint, what purpose does it serve that these pieces are displayed, especially in a room together? Cue my Tour Guide Barbie voice: "Over here we have a garment worn by men who murdered and mutilated easily hundreds of souls during the years after the Civil War. And if you look over here, we have a fancy cape of the wife of the leader of the men who murdered and mutilated easily hundreds of souls during the years after the Civil War. The surprising clean condition of the white cape shows a stark contrast to the amount of blood spilled during the time she was alive but you won't find that in any of the text!"

What I was most surprised about the whole exhibit was "The End." Wait for it... That was "The End." There was a little more text about some of the legal stuff and the nation moving along. A whole lot of loose ends strewn about as I passed through the next doorway. The final room was an art exhibit (art reflecting the Civil War by Red Grooms... it was in itself an engaging exhibit but a complete disjointed jolt from what is going on in the other room). So we had a replica school and a robe. We had mentions of violence and a few images. Oh, and a misplaced cape. No conclusions, no provoking questions, no unsettling of basic understandings (or misunderstandings) of American history during the years following a civil war.

History is messy. We don't get to change that. However, we do have a choice on how we deal with the messy, especially when interacting with the public. Provocation leads to conversations. Provocation leads to further investigation. Provocation leads to questioning. Hell, provocation might lead to news stories published and people losing their minds (which is what I think encouraged the great deal of reservation exercised in the development of this exhibit). But that can also lead to more people engaging and more people visiting and more people joining this conversation. Put that robe on display in the middle, put it on a mannequin that looked like it was doing something. If you can have props like a chalkboard, why not have props like a noose? People like stuff and stuff can convey greater meanings. It is 2015. We aren't hiding behind "oh, it is in the past" anymore. We aren't even hiding behind "oh, only the prettier parts of the past should be on display." Hell, even "put it in the text, but use passive voice to break it to our audience gently," doesn't work. The violence was real and had long-lasting consequences. Public spaces are meant for engagement and hiding the robe in the corner isn't going to do much engaging.

Historians who engage with the public, whether front line interpreters or exhibit designers have a great deal of potential and responsibility. Our first step: acknowledging the messy. Our second step: facilitating the messy. It might be a struggle, but it is our challenge. Maybe it means historians standing up and being brave about this messy history. In the words of Sara Bareilles: "I want to see you be brave."




*For my annoying disclaimer, I wrote this on my own time and visited the museum on my own time as a member of the public. I am not associated with the Tennessee State Museum although I am constantly suggesting to visitors from out-of-town to visit. And I want to acknowledge the challenges of doing history within government-y confines (I have been there, done that). Envelope-pushing is still allowed, though.

**Edit: I changed the date of the Tennessee legislative committee to reflect the accurate year.

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