Lowell and the Black Museum Movement

Cathy Stanton, in The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City, builds on the work of Handler and Gabler in The New History in an Old Museum. Stanton, an anthropologist, completed two years of field work at Lowell National Historical Park. She states that the subject of her book revolves around the notion of “reciprocity of disappearance and exhibition – the process by which museums, monuments, historic sites, and similar types of display not only reflect and memorialize change, but actually help to create it.” (Stanton xiii) Stanton notes that museum exhibits, if analyzed as cultural performances, are produced and presented within the context of “social networks of relationship[s] that both shape its content and may in turn be affected by whatever is collected, interpreted, and displayed.” (Stanton 22) Stanton’s goal was to situate public historians as social actors within Lowell, a postindustrial city that has undergone significant socioeconomic and demographic changes. (Stanton 29)

Staton’s discussion of the Run of the Mill and the Acre tours are particularly interesting. They both promote the progressive narrative of American history without fully engaging in the current state of neoliberalism as its seen in Lowell. The Acre tour takes visitors through a neighborhood in Lowell that is not thriving economically and where many of its residents live in poverty.  Visitors to Lowell NHP are typically in the middle class, and tend to be uneasy about the tour. Rangers who lead the tour present a chronology of life in the Acre that oversimplifies migration and homeland allegiances, and also presuppose a level of cohesion and unity among the various ethnic communities. The tours do not acknowledge the unease of visitors or any conflict that may exist within the Acre neighborhood as well as limiting any encounters of face-to-face interactions with natives. The tours Stanton details in the first few chapters of her book demonstrate how the narratives of history Lowell NHP are embracing are not portraying an accurate view of what life is like in current day Lowell. Part of the reason for this is because the professional public historians employed at Lowell are more similar ethnically and socioeconomically to the visitors to Lowell than the inhabitants of Lowell themselves. These differences between the historians and residents of Lowell reinforces “insider/outsider, present/past, working class/middle class divisions.” (Stanton 160)

Stanton’s work in Lowell raises important questions for public historians: how can public historians accurately portray urban history without glossing over the current conditions of life in that particular city? How can public historians interpret the impacts of capitalism for their audiences? How can public historians successfully engage with the inhabitants of a city in a way that doesn’t marginalize them or distance them from the history being told? Public historians need to be mindful of how the history they are interpreting is partially resultant from economic conditions that typically create economic disparities. Public historians need to tell a more inclusive version of history, and fairly represent all classes and groups of people.

Stanton’s work ends on better note than History is Bunk or The New History in an Old Museum. Stanton notes that the revised Boott Mill exhibit examines textile production and addresses the positive and negative aspects of economic globalization. The exhibit seeks to show “new Lowell mill girls” around the world, in places that are currently industrializing, and then parallels are drawn to Lowell. The exhibit also discusses worker exploitation and includes a hands-on section that uses articles of clothing to ask questions about consumer choice and profitability. (Stanton 230-231)

Andrea Burns, in From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement examines the establishment of the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, the International Afro-American Museum in Detroit, the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Washington, D.C., and the African American Museum of Philadelphia. Burns writes that black museum leaders “encouraged a uniquely ‘black’ identity and consciousness through exhibits and educational programs, and emphasized the vital need for interaction between the museum and the local African American community.” (Burns 5) These leaders drew from the notion of racial uplift as well as grounding their museums in the Black Power Movement.

In contrast to Lowell, the leaders of these museums fully understood their audiences. This is in part due to their motivations in establishing these institutions–leaders wanted their museums to be conduits to the needs of the black community, which is defined both in physical terms and as the global community that makes up the African Diaspora. (Burns 4-5) These leaders created exhibits that drew in and reflected life in the black community. at the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, staff created an exhibit titled The Rat–Man’s Invited Affliction, which demonstrated a facet of everyday life in Anacostia: rats. The neighborhood suffered from a large rat infestation problem, due to overcrowded apartment buildings and poor trash collection resulting from urban renewal and governmental neglect. The exhibit boasted high attendance and news coverage both locally and nationally. The Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, unlike other museums at that time, embraced the problems the community was facing and successfully demonstrated what life was like for those within that community. Charles Wright, head of the International Afro-American Museum, wanted to ensure that the museum reached out to all citizens of the community and wanted to expose as many people as possible to black culture. To reach this goal,  he worked to establish a mobile exhibit van, dubbed a “museum on wheels.”

Despite the museums’ success in understanding and reaching out to their audiences, these institutions were not without their problems. Burns is careful to delineate the struggles each museum went through economically. The Philadelphia Museum in particular faced many hardships, as its leaders struggled to establish the museum apart from the city’s bicentennial celebrations. These museums continue to face problems to this day, so much so that the current leaders are concerned that the National Museum of African American History and Culture will deflect resources and visitors aways from their institutions. Burns’s work is fascinating, and was a compelling read.

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