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Partial, Partisan, Contested: Public Memory at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

by Karyn Keane

The concepts of public memory and the locations meant to recreate and preserve public memory serve as two crucial aspects of place theory studies.  In Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials, Blair, Dickinson, and Ott define “public memory” as “those studies taking the stance that beliefs about the past are shared among members of a group, whether a local community or the citizens of a nation-state” (6).  Though commonly confused with general “history” (defined by Kendall Phillips as having “apparent claims to accuracy and objectivity” and “implying a singular and authentic account of the past”), public memory differs in that it celebrates personal anecdotes and minute details rather than impersonal historical facts (8).  By studying public memory and examining “the ways memories attain meaning” and “compel others to accept them,” one can begin to understand the reasoning behind representations of the past and how the collective memories of groups impact these representations (Phillips 9).  Inquiries about public memory can be applied to any public place; however, when applied to museums, these inquiries may assist with offering valuable insight into the collective emotions that resonate within visitors and the disparities between an event’s representations by museums, media outlets, and other avenues of communication.  

Investigating museums and their applications of public memory is an enduringly worthwhile pursuit.  In addition to the fact that it serves as a generally interesting topic, studying museums as places of public memory provides visitors with unique views of the past and its contemporary representations, which reveal quite a bit about our current values.  The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, DC serves as an excellent location in which to launch such an inquiry.  Proclaimed on its website to be “the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture,” the NMAAHC offers an in-depth look at a formerly marginalized topic.  Unlike most of its Smithsonian counterparts, many of the stories told within the NMAAHC have been selectively forgotten throughout history, making their presentation within the museum all the more significant on cultural and personal levels.  Through the story of its creation as well as the events and memories depicted within its walls, the NMAAHC conveys public memory in ways that are meaningfully specific and unique to the African American story.

Additionally, the NMAAHC’s display of public memory maintains relevance within the context of the United States’ current political climate.  Numerous media outlets (including even those found within the White House) routinely question the reliability of sources and their information.  In a time filled with uncertainty, skepticism, and distrust, taking into consideration “those studies taking the stance that beliefs about the past are shared among members of a group, whether a local community or the citizens of a nation-state” may allow for better insight into how groups express their beliefs and stories within and between each other (Blair, Dickinson, & Ott 6).  In addition to creating discussion about representations of past events via different sources, this information could also prove useful when studying visual forms of historical representation, such as the dismantling of Confederate monuments throughout the United States.  By understanding concepts of public memory, citizens can develop educated opinions about which people and events merit public recognition.  Thus, the NMAAHC proves doubly relevant when its modern political role is examined.  

Although plans for the museum first arose through an act of Congress in 2003, the NMAAHC website says that this single event served as “the culmination of decades of efforts to promote and highlight the contributions of African Americans” (n.pag.). The museum’s “Many Lenses” project serves as an example of these efforts.  As described on the NMAAHC website, the project invited curators from other museums (the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of American History) to choose particularly significant artifacts from their collections to discuss.  Although the museum’s website makes no specific mention of public memory, the concept is clearly at play in this curatorial decision which celebrates the personal perspectives of multiple groups (n.pag.).  These details surrounding the construction and ongoing innovations of the NMAAHC exemplify its role as a place of public memory by including groups with relevant collective memories in the process.  

Blair, Dickinson, and Ott contend that public memory places are “partial, partisan, and thus often contested” and that this fact is crucially important in gaining a holistic understanding of the concept (9).  This tenet of public memory remains particularly relevant when studying museums and the ways in which they interact with guests to convey collective narratives to various demographics.  Due to its individuality, innovation, and representation of stories frequently regarded as “insignificant” or “lost,” the National Museum of African American History and Culture serves as an application of public memory by showcasing myriad exhibits, which though partial, partisan, and contested, seek to tell the nation’s story through the lens of the African American experience.  

The first component of Blair, Dickinson, and Ott’s theory, partiality, is made evident throughout the NMAAHC.  The authors acknowledge Barbie Zelizer’s argument that a “basic premise in our understanding of collective memory concerns its partiality.  No single memory contains all that we know, or could know, about any given event, personality, or issue” (9).  Thus, in the context of museum studies, “partiality” refers to the fact that no museum will ever be able to represent the complete narrative of a group of people because no museum can access every personal account and relevant artifact.  By no means exclusive to the NMAAHC, this challenge is commonly faced by many museums throughout the world as they strive to represent as many perspectives as possible.  Suhi Choi cites South Korea’s No Gun Ri Peace Park as an example of this problem, explaining that while the bodies of trauma survivors “can be competitive and even subversive media in communication trauma,” these survivors will inevitably die (468).  As Choi poses in her article, “who then will tell us?” (469).  Choi contends that in order to best represent collective memories, museums must find ways of preserving the memories of existing survivors in engaging and lasting forms so that museums might convey as much of the given narrative as possible.  This serves as one of the critical goals of the NMAAHC.  

Rather than attempting to convince visitors that they are gaining exposure to the African American narrative in its entirety, the NMAAHC directly addresses its partiality through its artistic and curatorial choices.  On the museum’s first floor, one can find lists of slaves’ names inscribed upon the walls.  Upon closer examination, visitors learn that these lists are arranged as a side-by-side comparison to demonstrate the number of slaves who boarded ships headed for North America versus how many slaves arrived.  These lists serve as a representation of the stories that never had the chance to be told and included in the larger historical narrative.  Although this problem is faced by museums everywhere, few address the issue so explicitly. By acknowledging this deficiency, the NMAAHC acknowledges not only that its representation remains partial, but, indeed, the story of African Americans is itself partial, as so many voices are forever lost or muted.

Further proof of the partiality of the NMAAHC can be found by studying the ownership qualities of the individual artifacts found within the museum.  The descriptions of certain objects name specific former owners, such as Nat Turner’s personal bible; however, the former owners of other objects remain anonymous, such as a pair of rusted slave shackles with no named owner (see figures 1 and 2).

The anonymously-owned objects lead audiences to question who they once belonged to and what stories these former owners could have shared.  Would these untold stories have revealed something about the individual object in question or would they have contributed to the narrative of slavery as a whole?  Additionally, the fact that the former owners of many of the artifacts found in the NMAAHC remain anonymous, while other museums emphasize ownership, further reinforces the sense of partiality.  For example, the National Museum of American History’s exhibit of the dresses of the First Ladies boasts knowledge of the owners, manufacturers, and textiles used in each item.  A lack of this information throughout the NMAAHC reminds visitors of the partiality of the museum and the African American story as a whole.  The notable gaps in the African American story caused by this anonymity reminds us of the partiality of all museums and the fact that we will never have access to the entire narrative.  Despite the thoroughness of the NMAAHC, the museum’s exhibits serve to remind visitors that thousands of untold stories remain.

The second aspect of Blair, Dickinson, and Ott’s theory, partisanship, also characterizes the NMAAHC as a public memory place. Blair, Dickinson, and Ott argue that “partisan” in this context refers to when museums select and display objects in an effort to take stances on social issues (9).  Curators frequently grapple with partisanship; one example can be found in the efforts of Japanese political activists to start a Tokyo Peace Museum in honor of the Tokyo Air Raids.  Critics of the Tokyo Peace Museum’s plans argued that the museum would be seen as expressing “anti-Japanese sentiments” by acknowledging the atrocities committed by the Japanese military during the Asia-Pacific War instead of exclusively focusing on the suffering of the Japanese people (Karacas 531).  By keeping these acknowledgments in the plans for the museum, these activists took a political stance by admitting that their people had wronged others in addition to being wronged themselves.

In a similar fashion, the NMAAHC exhibits partisanship in a way that critics could view as “anti-American” or “anti-south.”  By using artifacts to demonstrate the hardships placed upon African Americans throughout the nation’s history, the museum rejects the popular concepts of “forgetting” portions of history that reflect negatively on the majority of Americans or twisting historical accounts to portray African Americans as unruly criminals.  Several examples of these efforts can be found in the museum’s coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement.  In an exhibit entitled “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond,” the NMAAHC displays a Black Lives Matter t-shirt as well as a tank top worn at a protest in honor of Michael Brown, which reads “This Ain’t Yo Mama’s Civil Rights Movement” (see figures 3 and 4).  

Although the NMAAHC is aware that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is controversial and frequently maligned by conservatives and anyone associated with law enforcement, the curators understand the importance of representing all parts of the African American narrative, including those that elicit controversy. The BLM t-shirt’s display of a bullet hole over the chest of the wearer delivers the bold stance that protesters face inherent danger when advocating for the value of their lives (see Figure 3).  Such a message may prove difficult for some audiences to face; however, the NMAAHC recognizes its necessity in creating progressive discourse.  Similarly, after her arrest during a protest in Ferguson, Missouri, activist Rahiel Tesfamariam donated the above “This Ain’t Yo Mama’s Civil Rights Movement” t-shirt to the NMAAHC (see figure 5) (McGlone).  Her decision to cut off the hem and sleeves of the shirt create a rougher aesthetic, conveying the idea that the struggle she represents is long-standing and shows few signs of improvement.  This choice, paired with the message “This Ain’t Yo Mama’s Civil Rights Movement,” pays homage to the struggles of the past while simultaneously demanding change and asserting that older methods of protesting civil rights are now obsolete and ineffective.  Through their choices regarding what objects to display and how to display them, the museum exhibits undeniable partisanship and conveys their powerful stances on past and present social issues.

Blair, Dickinson, and Ott’s contestability concept can be observed in various responses to the NMAAHC.  The authors contend that “public memories may be challenged by different versions of the past, by introduction of different information or valuations” (9).  Museums throughout the world face these challenges, as demonstrated in Kristan Poirot’s critical account of the “woman problem” in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI).  As Poirot takes readers on a written tour through the BCRI’s exhibits, she points out examples in which women face complete exclusion from the Civil Rights narrative, including a scale model of an African American home that makes no mention of black women’s domestic roles or the violence they faced during this era (634).  Poirot contends that “framing black resistance as a response to a set of exigencies that ignores the racial/sexual violence directed at black women further mires efforts to recover women in consensus memory narratives” (630).  A negative review such as this one exemplifies the contestability of museum displays.  

Since its opening in 2016, the NMAAHC has also been contested.  An online article from The Washington Times condemns the museum for omitting Clarence Thomas from the museum’s exhibits, citing Senator John Coryn’s statement that “‘Justice Thomas’ humble beginnings, brilliant mind, and incredible contributions to American jurisprudence are nothing short of remarkable’” and that “‘his omission from the [NMAAHC] is troubling and reflects a disregard for the historical significance of his service to our country’” (Richardson).  The article makes no mention of Thomas’ alleged sexual harassment towards Anita Hill but clearly expresses discontent with the NMAAHC and the belief that they are inaccurately representing the African American narrative.  

Fig. 6. Bill Cosby album.

Another example of the NMAAHC’s contestability can be seen in Graham Bowley’s New York Times article.  Here, Bowley addresses complaints that the museum failed to include any mention of the sexual assault allegations faced by Bill Cosby.  Written prior to the opening of the museum, Bowley explains that the women who accused Cosby were highly upset to learn that the museum planned on leaving out their allegations from an exhibit that featured his work as a comedian and television star (see figure 6).

Lonnie G. Bunch, the museum’s director, was paraphrased in the article as stating that “the museum seeks to strike a balance, showing personal suffering and acts of oppression as well as the great achievements and resilience that constitute the African American experience… (and that) given the subject matter, not everyone will be happy with all of the curatorial decision-making” (Bowley).  This critical account demonstrates that the NMAAHC, despite its best efforts to accurately and fairly portray the story of the African American experience, remains subject to critics.

The partiality, partisanship, and contestability of the National Museum of African American History and Culture act as a public fixture of the concept of public memory.  By using this museum as a case study, one can gain a thorough understanding of the importance of public memory to society and the ways in which it helps groups express their collective ideals. This understanding can lead to valuable discussions regarding the fluidity of historical records and the ways in which different constituencies interpret and represent the values of contemporary American society.  By understanding these qualities in contemporary contexts, visitors to the NMAAHC (and other museums and memorials) can enhance their experiences as citizens and gain a better understanding of how and why the past is represented in certain ways.  In an era when these representations are constantly questioned in varying capacities, this knowledge will prove crucial to all informed citizens.  

Works Cited

“About the Museum.”  National Museum of African American History and Culture, 2017,  

Anonymous.  Bible belonging to Nat Turner.  1830, print book, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC.  

Anonymous.  Shackles.  Pre-1860, metalwork, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC.  

Anonymous.  T-shirt featuring Black Lives Matter graphic.  2014, t-shirt, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC.  

Blair, Carole, Greg Dickinson, and Brian L. Ott.  Introduction.  Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials, by Blair, Dickinson, and Ott, University Alabama Press, 2010, pp. 1-35.

Bowley, Graham.  “Museum’s Plan to Include Cosby Material Draws Criticism From Accusers.” The New York Times, 27 March 2016, Accessed 15 April 2017.  

Choi, Suhi.  “Can a Memorial Communicate Embodied Trauma?: Reenacting Civilian Bodies in the No Gun Ri Peace Park.”  Rhetoric & Public Affairs, vol. 19, no. 3, 2016, pp. 465-489.

Cosby, Bill.  Bill Cosby Is A Very Funny Fellow…Right!  1963, record, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC.

Foulkes, Julia L.  Review of Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater ShapedAmerican Entertainment by Tuliza Fleming and Guthrie Ramsey.  The Public Historian, 2011, pp. 157-159.  

Hands Up United.  T-shirt worn by Rahiel Tesfamariam at a protest commemorating Michael Brown. 2015, t-shirt, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.      

Karacas, Cary.  “Place, Public Memory, and the Tokyo Air Raids.”  Geographical Review, vol. 100, no. 4, 2010, pp. 521-537.  

McGlone, Peggy.  “‘This Ain’t Yo Mama’s Civil Rights Movement’ T-shirt from Ferguson Donated to Smithsonian Museum.”  The Washington Post, 1 March 2016,  Accessed 27 October 2017.  

Phillips, Kendall R.  Framing Public Memory.  University of Alabama Press, 2004.  

Poirot, Kristan.  “Gendered Geographies of Memory: Place, Violence, and Exigency at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.”  Rhetoric & Public Affairs, vol. 18, no. 4, 2015, pp. 621-647.

Richardson, Bradford.  “Congressional Republicans Slam Clarence Thomas ‘omission’ from African-American museum.”  The Washington Times, 6 December 2016, /news/2016/dec/6/republicans-slam-clarence-thomas-omission-museum/.  Accessed 16 April 2017.  

Karyn Keane is a sophomore at Longwood University, majoring in English with a minor in Rhetoric and
Professional Writing. Although she has always been passionate about reading and writing, she realized her potential in the world of academia as a freshman at Longwood with the help of Dr. Jennifer Miskec and Dr. Heather Lettner-Rust. She hopes to attend graduate school and become a university professor so that she can assist future generations in finding their own calling.

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