Cu­rat­ing his­tory in the mak­ing

A new Smith­so­nian mu­seum in Bal­ti­more will doc­u­ment un­rest and the im­por­tance of the ‘Black Lives Mat­ter’ move­ment.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Kevin Rec­tor krec­tor@balt­sun.com

BAL­TI­MORE — As Aaron Bryant walked along North Av­enue on the night of Fred­die Gray’s fu­neral, his pho­tog­ra­pher’s eye noted how the ris­ing flames framed the “waves of po­lice in riot gear” and the wall of min­is­ters call­ing for calm.

In­stinc­tively, the Bal­ti­more man says, he be­gan men­tally cat­a­loging the most evoca­tive “vis­ual cues” around him. He knew they would help in­form his work chron­i­cling the mo­ment as a pho­tog­ra­phy cu­ra­tor at the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion’s Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture, now un­der con­struc­tion on the Na­tional Mall in Wash­ing­ton.

As he sur­veyed and pho­tographed the un­rest on the evening of April 27, Bryant con­sid­ered a se­ries of ques­tions.

“Who’s inthe pho­to­graph and what is the im­pact they’re hav­ing on the peo­ple around them?” Bryant, 50, asked him­self. “Why are they here? Why are these peo­ple in front? Who are the peo­ple be­hind them?”

Later, when col­league Deb­o­rah Tu­lani Salahu-Din looked at an im­age Bryant had snapped of a burn­ing car on North Av­enue, her eyes im­me­di­ately ze­roed in on a sin­gle ob­ject: the over­turned bar stool in the front seat that had been used to smash the car’s wind­shield.

In the bar stool, Salahu-Din saw an item the mu­seum “might be able to sal­vage” in the days or months af­ter the un­rest, to help tell the hu­man story of the clashes as part of a fu­ture ex­hibit.

“What did it mean to the per­son who threw it?” asked Salahu-Din, 55, a con­tent de­vel­op­ment and three-di­men­sional ob­ject col­lec­tion spe­cial­ist at the mu­seum. “What did it mean to the shop­keeper who lost it?”

As Bryant and Salahu-Din see it, the protests and un­rest in Bal­ti­more last month left an in­deli­ble mark on the con­science of a ma­jor Amer­i­can and his­tor­i­cally African-Amer­i­can city— rea­son enough for a closer look by mu­seum staff.

But they also see the events as part of a broader cul­tural force writ large across the African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity na­tion­wide — a force that has spread from the Florida neigh­bor­hood where Trayvon Martin was killed by a neigh­bor­hood watch vol­un­teer to Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown was shot by po­lice.

They de­scribe the “Black Lives Mat­ter” move­ment as a mod­ern man­i­fes­ta­tion of the civil rights strug­gle — and say it must be doc­u­mented as such.

“We’re bear­ing wit­ness and doc­u­ment­ing the events that are go­ing on,” said Salahu-Din, a former di­rec­tor of the Great Blacks in Wax Mu­seum in Bal­ti­more.

“Many of the is­sues fo­cus on po­lice bru­tal­ity, but it’s also big­ger than that,” she said. “It fo­cuses also on the so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic in­jus­tices that have been with us for quite some time.”

“As a his­tory mu­seum, it’s im­por­tant for us within this mo­ment to put it within a his­tor­i­cal con­text,” Bryant said.

“Black Lives Mat­ter is part of a con­tin­uum that has been a part of the African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity, whether it’s go­ing back to the 1960s, look­ing at what hap­pened in Watts or in other cities across the coun­try and even far­ther back,” he said. “There are al­ways go­ing to be some so­cial, eco­nomic ties or strings that con­nect what’s hap­pen­ing to­day with what hap­pened years ago.”

The Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory, which is ris­ing slowly near the Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment, is set to open late next year with about 80,000 square feet of floor space for ex­hibits on cul­tural themes such as mu­sic, the­ater and art; com­mu­nity themes such as re­gion­al­ism, sports, the mil­i­tary, faith and ac­tivism; and his­tor­i­cal themes such as slav­ery and the strug­gle for free­dom.

It will in­clude space for events since 1968, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was as­sas­si­nated and ri­ots broke out in cities across the coun­try, in­clud­ing Bal­ti­more.

Plans are for the post-1968 sec­tion to­men­tion Trayvon Martin and the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment with­out go­ing into depth on the sub­ject. But that could change.

Be­yond the per­ma­nent ex­hibits, staff have been di­rected to take the pulse of the na­tion so as not to miss op­por­tu­ni­ties to col­lect im­por­tant items from his­tory as it un­folds.

Con­tem­po­rary items could be­come part of tem­po­rary ex­hibits in the­mu­seum, in­form aca­demic pub­li­ca­tions, be fea­tured on the­mu­seum’s web­site or get wrapped into ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams, said Bill Pret­zer, the­mu­seum’s se­nior cu­ra­tor for his­tory.

As a child, Bryant of­ten went to the cor­ner of Penn­syl­va­nia and North av­enues, the cen­ter of the re­cent ri­ot­ing. His mother worked for the city health de­part­ment in an of­fice there, and both of his par­ents’ fam­ily churches were nearby.

Salahu-Din was born in East Bal­ti­more but moved to Sal­is­bury as a child. She re­turned to Bal­ti­more in 1977, at­tended and taught at Cop­pin State Univer­sity and di­rected the Great Blacks in Wax Mu­seum on North Av­enue. She also was a con­sul­tant on the design of the Regi­nald F. Lewis Mu­seum of Mary­land African-Amer­i­can His­tory & Cul­ture in Bal­ti­more.

Pret­zer said Bryant’s and Salahu-Din’s con­nec­tions to the city will serve the new Smith­so­nian mu­seum well — as will Bal­ti­more’s prox­im­ity to Wash­ing­ton.

“We have a close-by lab­o­ra­tory where we can look at the va­ri­ety of things that are part and par­cel of this larger mo­ment, and we can ex­am­ine it in some great de­tail be­cause we have staff mem­bers who are so fa­mil­iar with the com­mu­nity,” Pret­zer said. “One can imag­ine that we will end up do­ing amore thor­ough job of ex­am­in­ing the events in Bal­ti­more — both the short-term and long-term, just as we would try to do with [events in] Wash­ing­ton, D.C.— thanwe might with a city else­where.”

The cu­ra­tors say they can’t dis­cuss items they are pur­su­ing from the Bal­ti­more events, in part be­cause the Smith­so­nian main­tains strict rules on col­lec­tions. But they say they will be look­ing for all sorts of things, from mass-pro­duced but­tons and signs to items that tell a more per­sonal story.

“We look for pub­lic ex­pres­sion,” Pret­zer said. “We look for ar­ti­facts that are evoca­tive of events — so some­thing that has emo­tional power, some­thing that may have been at­tacked or de­stroyed, some­thing that was dam­aged in the process.”

They will also be look­ing for items that show “mul­ti­ple points of view,” he said, in­clud­ing those of law en­force­ment and govern­ment of­fi­cials.

Salahu-Din wants ar­ti­facts that show “the dy­nam­ics of the peo­ple in the com­mu­nity,” such as the roles of women and men and the in­volve­ment of stu­dents.

She wants to show “the spirit of change” and the sense of hope that she says she felt on the cor­ner of Penn­syl­va­nia and North on the day the six of­fi­cers in­volved in Gray’s ar­rest were charged.

Bryant hopes to cap­ture the lead­er­ship role of young peo­ple and on­line ac­tivists.

“They weren’t the head of some big na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion, but they had a cam­era phone, and that al­lowed them to cre­ate a dif­fer­ent kind of mo­bi­liza­tion,” he said. “We’re start­ing to see a mat­u­ra­tion of that to­day, which is another rea­son why Ferguson and Bal­ti­more are his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant.”

The work ‘fo­cuses … on the so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic in­jus­tices that have been with us for quite some time.’ — Deb­o­rah Tu­lani

Salahu-Din, ex­hi­bi­tion re­searcher

Kim Hairston Bal­ti­more Sun

AARON BRYANT, left, Deb­o­rah Tu­lani Salahu-Din and Bill Pret­zer of the Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture, set to open in 2016.

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