When Museums Stay Silent
I love museums. They’re a relatively inexpensive and comprehensive way to travel across time and space. A good history museum is essentially an immersive time travel experience with working plumbing – which is extremely convenient for people like me, who really want to pretend to be Vikings but also can’t survive without toilet paper.
Museums are also wonderful first-date locations, by the way. You can explore all the fascinating exhibits with your partner, and, well, if they turn out to be incompatible, you’re still in a museum, which is a lot more fun than staring awkwardly into space over panna cotta for two hours. Also, if you have a disagreement and you’re in a museum, you can always grab a couple of handy 9th century swords off the walls and settle it the old-fashioned way, although on second thought please don’t do this unless you are actively seeking out a prison term.
I have been to a lot of museums in my life. Whenever I end up in a new city, I make it a point to check out three things: the bookshops, the aquarium (if applicable), and the museums. Some of my favourite museums are relatively small, like the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology in Ann Arbor. Others are huge – I’m an Egyptology buff, so I loved visiting the National Museum of Denmark and the British Museum.
And then there are the disappointments, the big shiny museums I expected to love but walked away from with a sense of acute dissatisfaction. That is what I am here to talk about today: the obligation museums have to the public, and how heartrending it is when they do not fulfil that obligation.
The worst museum I have ever visited is, without doubt, the Atlanta History Museum, which I toured in 2018. Now, for some context, I have been an American Civil War nerd for many years. I even participated in an official Civil War reenactment once, wearing a laughably oversized Union uniform and learning how to shoot a Springfield muzzle-loading musket filled with blanks. In high school I organised a class Civil War reenactment for extra credit, although I was only 16 and did not really have a grasp on what the Civil War represented, other than a possible excuse to charge across the football field and whack my classmates with pool noodles.
As a sheltered, privileged teenager in the Bay Area, I had viewed the Civil War as a conflict during which acts of bravery were displayed by both sides. I was, of course, desperately wrong. Fighting for a nation which actively promotes slavery, even if you personally don’t practice it, is inexcusable regardless of your valour in battle. This seems like such an obvious message – of course anyone who defends slavery, including indirect defenders, is fundamentally a horrible person! But that is not the way Civil War history is taught in so many American schools. The Civil War, as depicted in our textbooks, was a refined thing, an honourable affair which was certainly connected in some way to slavery, but was also about States’ Rights and Failure of Democracy and many other genteel-sounding concepts. As a child of Indian immigrants, someone whose family had no direct personal connection to this conflict, that was the viewpoint I absorbed as a child. I could think about the Civil War and its participants, and I could think about slavery, but I could also neatly separate the two from each other.
Then I went to college, and picked History as my minor. I grew into devastating comprehension as I took Civil War classes, as I read nightmarish firsthand accounts written by enslaved Black Americans and their descendants. For the first time, I educated myself on the immense pain which preceded this conflict, and which is unfortunately overshadowed by discussions of battle strategy and presidential politics in high school history classes.
I learnt in a more personal manner, too. My brown immigrant parents told me about their own harrowing experiences with people who did not view them as equal to themselves, who displayed Confederate flags on their vehicles for the purpose of intimidation. I revisited my own childhood and reflected on the many ways I’d experienced racism: some subtle, some viciously blatant. I realised that I had internalised a twisted retelling of American history – one which did not match the true experiences of Black Americans, as well as those of other people of colour, including people like me.
By the time I visited the Atlanta History Center, I was 21 and had a very different understanding of America’s most bloody conflict. I had heard great things about AHC’s Civil War exhibit, and was interested in seeing it for myself while in Atlanta (my stay was just for the summer, as I was doing an internship there).
I spent a long time in the Civil War exhibit. It was large, a winding corridor through a set of rooms which took you on a journey from 1861 to 1865. The setup was easy to navigate and the displays themselves were comprehensive, filled with everything from uniforms to wagons to muskets and knives. I learnt about the experiences of Union and Confederate soldiers as the years slogged on and the death toll increased.
And I hated it. I despised it, because in all the lovely polished write-ups not once was mentioned the true cause of the Civil War, that cornerstone of the Confederacy. One of the largest museums in Atlanta, long known as the beating heart of the prosperous New South, had not bothered to acknowledge the glaring elephant in the room.
There was nothing in this entire exhibit about slavery.
History museums provide something vital which is absent in high school classes. AP US History and other courses like it have curriculums to stick with. The material they cover is dictated by the state, and so students are only given information which will help them pass standardised testing. But museums? Museums have more creative freedom. Museums don’t exist to get you through AP exams. Museums can, and should, talk about the ugly bits of our past. Not everyone can afford to attend college and learn that way, so museums must provide that information for us to learn. Understanding the truth of our nasty history, without sanitising it or protecting our sensibilities, is vital for us to progress as a nation.
The US is, frankly, quite bad at this. There are so many people out there who still view the Confederate flag as a symbol of resistance in the face of oppression, and that breaks my heart. It hurts that Gone With the Wind is romanticised despite its pro-slavery themes. My blood boils when I think about how white supremacist societies like the Daughters of the Confederacy were instrumental in raising Confederate statues and memorials all over the South, for the express purpose of terrorising Black Americans. It is a sad fact that we lionise the Confederacy in our culture, celebrating their leaders as brave underdogs when we should be condemning them as traitors and perpetrators of genocide.
Of course, changing museum exhibits won’t singlehandedly fix American racism, but it is a small step toward the education which is so deeply necessary for cultural change. When museums are truthful and don’t shy away from the dark parts of history, they inspire the rest of us to question what led to that darkness, and how we can prevent it from reoccurring. I have seen a brilliant example of this in Copenhagen’s National Museum of Denmark, which I visited almost exactly a year after I went to the AHC. Denmark has a long history of colonisation, from medieval Viking invasions to later settlements in India, Africa, and the Caribbean. It was a refreshing surprise to walk through the NMoD and read descriptions which plainly discussed the evils of colonisation. The India exhibit showed rich and fascinating items from the spice trade, while also taking care to highlight the devastating effects colonialism had on millions of native Indians who were subjugated and stolen from. Other parts of the museum went into detail about Denmark’s role in the slave trade. This is how to present historical truth. This is how to structure museum exhibits. I walked away thinking that the curators of the AHC should make a trip to Copenhagen and take some notes. On the off-chance they are reading this: Atlanta History Museum staff, I would like to formally submit that as a suggestion for your post-quarantine plans. You’ll have a great time! Denmark has some lovely castles, and the pastries there are almost as sweet as the honesty in their museums.