Monday, June 29, 2015

Monday Musing: Museums and “the Flag”

I’ve been following the chorus calling for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from…well, everywhere. The Alabama and South Carolina Capitols, the physical shelves of Walmart and the virtual shelves of Amazon and eBay, even games in the Apple Store. (Including games in which the flag was used in an historically accurate manner, though some of those were quickly restored.)

As a futurist, I am gripped by how this illustrates the complex, intertwined relationship between trends and disruptive events. For a hundred and fifty years following the end of the Civil War, America made glacially slow progress (and sometimes lost ground) in removing the signs and symbols of systemic, state-sponsored racism and oppression. The killing of 3,959 black people in “racial terror lynchings” did not accomplish this change. The death of four little girls in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 did not accomplish this change. The murder of three civil rights workers in 1964 did not accomplish this change.  And then, a terrorist attack on worshipers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church—and finally the tide seems to turn. People are calling for the removal of flags, statues and monuments that symbolize the Confederacy or memorialize its dead. Why now? It’s beyond my expertise to parse all the history, politics and emotion leading to this moment, but I wonder if social media boosted the impact of this tragedy past the threshold where our outrage could fade back into complaisance. The ubiquity of social media indelibly associated Dylann Roof with the Confederate flag even after the pictures were pulled from the web and amplified the moral pressure on leaders—political, religious and business—to take action.

As a museum worker, I’m noticing how our field is invoked in this dialog:

‘"The president has said before he believes the Confederate flag belongs in a museum, and that is still his position," Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, told reporters aboard Air Force One’ –BBC News

‘Senator Rand Paul weighed in Tuesday on the controversy surrounding the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina, saying it was “time to put it in a museum” during a radio interview.’ –New York Times

‘Longtime Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley on Sunday called for the Confederate flag, which hangs outside the South Carolina state capitol, to be removed and sent "into a museum,” calling it an "affirmation" of hatred.’ –The Washington Post

‘Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker believes it's time to change his state's flag to remove its reference to the Confederacy, he told CNN's "New Day" on Thursday. "I don't think our current flag is unifying and I think it's time to put it in a museum," said Wicker, a Republican.’ - CNN

‘“Frankly, the Confederate flag does not belong on state house grounds, it belongs in a museum,” said [Vermont Senator and Presidential candidate Bernie] Sanders.’ –Ring of Fire Radio

The best interpretation of these statements is that the speakers trust museums to make meaning of these hateful symbols, to both preserve the past and put in in perspective. I certainly think that’s what Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss) had in mind when he said in an interview on msnbc:

“We can put it [the Confederate flag] in a place where if people want to find out about it, they can do that—museums..We are doing a civil rights museum in our state right now. I would hope that flag would be part of that…museum, so people all over the world can come and see how Mississippi used to be. ”

(This article provides some thoughtful commentary on what interpreting a Confederate flag in a museum might entail.)

But I think that in most cases, this reading of the call to “put it in a museum” is too optimistic. I fear museums are being cast as the cultural equivalent of a bomb disposal container, a safe place to bury an explosive issue. The kind of warehouse that appears in the closing shot of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” where dangerous artifacts can be secured. “Put it in a museum” may be short hand for “stuff it away in the attic and forget it,” or “relegate it to the dustbin of history.”

However these statements are meant, I think museums should take the speakers at their word, step up to the plate and show what we can do—not just wrap these artifacts up in acid free paper and store them as relics of the past, but put them right back out in public view, with context about their history, symbolism, use and misuse. Museums can play an active role in making sure that, this time, we as a society don’t backslide, that this time the terrible disruption of violence finally accelerates our progress, and makes “the slow arc of the moral universe toward justice” a little less slow.

Monday musings are my way of sharing "brain blorts": brief, off-the-cuff thoughts about something I have read recently, both to help clarify my thinking an in the hopes of generating discussion and response. I give myself 15 minutes or so to jot down a summary of the article(s) stuck in my brain, and outline why I think they may be important.

1 comment:

Jim Mackay said...

Very nicely said, and I agree . . . the flag seems to belong in places where it can be interpreted, discussed and educationally enjoyed within the various contexts in which it's been used over the years. In that way, we DO sort of act as bomb disposal facilities . . . maybe more like bomb defusing and examination labs. Take the bombs apart, and examine them . . . understand them, and help people to see who made them and why. I think that this is a good way to help perpetuate any "lessons of history" that we can derive, rather than allowing mis-use and misunderstanding to continue to flourish.