Monday, October 1, 2012
October 1, 2012: Up in the Air, Part One
[Just to prove that American Studies inspirations can and do come from everywhere, this week I’m going to feature five topics that I was prompted to think about by the US Airways Magazine on my flight down to Philly. Please share your responses to any of these topics, or other American Studies topics you’ve recently been inspired to think about!]
On the Museum that’s helping redefine what such institutions and spaces can include and do.
The feature story in this edition of the magazine was on Charlotte, North Carolina; a US Airways hub and the host city for the recent Democratic National Convention, Charlotte is also, as the article argued, one of the more on-the-rise American cities. There are various reasons for that trend, but I would argue that many of the most compelling reflect impressive combinations of longstanding historical and distinctly 21st century American elements: the bike-sharing program that allows riders to wind through the city’s historic sites on the Mecklenburg County Greenway; the demographic diversity (“minorities” represent the majority of the city’s population) that includes centuries-old communities (such as African Americans) and much more recent arrivals (Asian American immigrants). And no Charlotte attraction better weds history to 21st century trends than the Levine Museum of the New South.
I’ve written before in this space about how difficult it can be to create historic sites or museums to remember our most complex and (often) dark histories, with the longstanding but still-unrealized idea of a museum of American slavery as exhibit A for that argument. Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of the American Indian could certainly be highlighted as an exemplary such engagement—while the NMAI does focus on many more informative and inspiring themes (presenting the identities and customs of different cultures and tribes, for example), it most definitely also engages with the darker histories to which Native Americans have so long been linked. Yet I would argue that creating a museum for the post-bellum American South—a period that has been called the nadir of African American life, and that was centrally defined by histories of segregation, lynching, the Ku Klux Klan, and more—, constructing a space that remembers and engages with such histories as part of a complex whole, represents an even more significant challenge.
I haven’t visited the Levine Museum yet (and if you have, I’d love to hear your takes in the comments!), so I can’t analyze in any in-depth way how it responds to that challenging and important task. I’ll admit that my extremely positive first take on the Museum is due in significant measure to seeing that it’s hosting the Without Sanctuary lynching exhibition this fall; I know of no exhibition that more fully and powerfully engages with a dark history than that one. But from what I can tell, including from the magazine’s own write-up, the Museum’s own exhibits are similarly willing to engage in compelling and complex terms with other regional histories, from sharecropping and segregation to the challenges and triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement. I’m sure that it also includes more celebratory exhibits; but even there—if the central permanent exhibit, Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers, is any indication—the Museum works to include divisive and tragic histories alongside the more positive or unifying ones, and asks its visitors to consider how all of those disparate but interconnected stories come together to form this one community. The more museums that can offer that to Americans, the better!
Next magazine-inspired story tomorrow,
PS. Takes on the Levine Museum? Other impressive museums you’d highlight?10/1 Memory Day nominee: Daniel Boorstin, the towering historian and Librarian of Congress whose pioneering and influential scholarly works include The Americans trilogy and three comprehensive volumes of world historical writing.