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Friday, April 7, 2017

April 7, 2017: NeMLA Recaps: The Reginald F. Lewis Museum

[A couple weeks back, we held the 48th annual Northeast MLA Convention in Baltimore. Thanks to the work of President Hilda Chacón, Executive Director Carine Mardorossian, and many many more, the convention went off beautifully. This week I’ll follow up on five particular events and conversations—add your thoughts, whether you were there or not, in comments, please!]
On three exemplary and inspiring sides to the wonderful Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History & Culture.
1)      The Lynching Tree: Like the city and state in which it’s located, the Lewis Museum features a wide and deep range of African American and American histories, from slavery and shipbuilding to sharecropping and jazz, Civil War soldiers to boxers, and many many more besides. But I was particularly struck by how the museum presented the histories of lynching—after reading materials and placards on those histories, visitors enter into a secluded, dark room under the low-hanging eaves and branches of wizened tree, and watch a powerful looping video of lynching images and stories. I haven’t had a chance yet to visit the National Museum of African American History & Culture, and can’t wait to see how the National Lynching Museum & Memorial develops; but in my experience, the Lewis Museum’s lynching exhibit was more evocative and potent than any I’ve encountered. Remembering lynching is about a highly complex and fraught balance of pain, discomfort, knowledge, and mourning, and I felt all those sides to the story under the branches of the Lewis Museum’s tree.
2)      Past and Present: While that lynching exhibit is rightly focused on a particular set of histories, however, the Lewis Museum’s overall exhibition m.o. is quite different. Materials and artifacts from 19th century or earlier are usually exhibited right next to, indeed in conversation with, photographs or artifacts from the more recent past or even our own moment. These materials are always related to one another (such as artifacts of slave shipbuilding in Frederick Douglass’ era next to photographs of mid-20th century African American shipwrights), and so offer narratives of continuity as well as change. The exhibits don’t usually make those narratives explicit in any way, though, instead asking viewers and visitors to think actively about the relationship between the materials, and thus between past and present, then and now. I’m tempted to call such exhibits Living History, but I think the effect is actually more multi-directional than that—not only bringing histories to life in our own moment, that is, but also putting our own moment back into conversation with the legacies and heritages out of which it has arisen. And whatever we call it, this exhibition motif is consistently both thought-provoking and moving.
3)      Sons: When my NeMLA colleague and friend John Casey had the chance to visit the Lewis Museum, the special exhibition (ongoing through the end of July) was Sons: Seeing the Modern African American Male. Featured the photographs of James Taliaferro, Sons highlights multi-generational African American families from the Baltimore area, with the explicit goal of representing the many different sides to manhood and masculinity in that community in our 21st century moment. Given on the one hand the prominence of the museum’s namesake and Baltimore native Reginald F. Lewis in such conversations, and on the other hand the ongoing and very distinct presence of African American men like Baltimore’s Freddie Gray in the news, the exhibition felt particularly salient in many ways. Yet what struck me most about Sons was the same thing I highlighted about the Boston MFA’s 2015 Gordon Parks exhibit: the fundamental, inescapable humanity of these photographic subjects. Even for those of us who resist all racist or discriminatory definitions, the truth is that a category like race all too easily reduces individuals and families to types, representations of larger communities. We’re certainly all that, but we’re also all individuals, and all sons and daughters as well. That’s a simple point but not an easy one always to remember, and this wonderful exhibit helped me do just that.
Special reflection post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other NeMLA memories to share?

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