Reflections on DuSable to Obama: Chicago’s Black Metropolis

The 2010, WTTW-Channel 11 (otherwise known as Chicago PBS) documentary DuSable to Obama: Chicago’s Black Metropolis endeavors to present over two centuries of African-American history in Chicago, from the settling of the Afro-French trader Jean Baptiste Point du Sable at the mouth of the Chicago River around 1790, to the presidential victory speech of Barack Obama in November, 2008, at Grant Park. Needless to say, this is an ambitious task. At a length of exactly two hours and sixteen minutes, the documentary succeeds in packaging black-Chicago history for its public audience, but it also falls prey to problems associated with deciding when to adhere to dominant narratives and when to create a new narrative by introducing stories that are local and unexpected.

A certain degree of loyalty to the national narrative is important. For example, it is always enlightening to remember that figures with a major national impact, such as Ida B. Wells, Emmett Till, Fred Hampton, Langston Hughes, and perhaps Robert Sengstacke Abbott (founder of the oft-cited black newspaper, The Chicago Defender), were once based here in the city. Likewise, a certain degree of local character is extremely important. In this respect, the documentary succeeds in profiling several black institutions—namely, the Provident Hospital, an institution for the practice of black medical professionals, and the Quinn Chapel A.M.E, described as the longest-standing African-American congregation in the city. Speaking generally, this tension between national narrative and local character is not unique to DuSable to Obama. Rather, it is a struggle that is somewhat inherent to all historical interpretations, especially those regarding histories of minority groups.

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Keep Calm and Carry On

Cross posted from From Auschwitz to Skokie where I discuss my recent trip to Poland to study Jewish history, heritage, memory, and the Holocaust as well as my work with the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, IL.

Keep Calm and Carry On

On September 29th the Illinois Holocaust Museum opened its newest temporary exhibit, Keep Calm and Carry On: Textiles on the Home Front in WWII Britain, a traveling exhibit from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  The exhibit explores the use of textiles during the war years, specifically propaganda scarves and government regulated clothing, to tell a story of rationing, propaganda, and patriotism.  The final sentences of the introductory panel beautifully sum up the thesis of the exhibit: “During a decade of extreme hardship and deprivation, these bright colored scarves and smart fashions were enlisted in the battle to keep spirits high.  Beauty — in measured amounts — was not frivolous, it was a patriotic duty.”  Utilizing a broad range of artifacts from textiles and furniture to fashion magazines and oral histories, this brightly colored exhibition provides an upbeat and invigorating contrast to the somber permanent exhibit of the museum.

Upon entering the exhibit the visitor is confronted with a fairly open floor plan: panels and artifacts are, for the most part, along the walls while the middle of the space is taken up by a rectangle of moveable walls, each side of which features a different film while a larger-than-life portrait of Winston Churchill presides over the entire space.  This floor plan allows the visitor to easily move between the different sections of the exhibit, each of which fits into the overall narrative, but can also stand alone.

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Digital Exhibits: A Roundtable

As museums and historical institutions have increased their web presence, so too have we seen the rise of the digital exhibit. For public history graduate students, it’s almost impossible to escape a program without designing one of your own. Below, several past and current students of the Public History Program at Loyola University Chicago unpack the good and the bad of digital exhibits while adding some constructive suggestions along the way.

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It is obvious that entering a digital exhibit is different from crossing the threshold of a physical exhibit space. What makes this difference important to us as public historians is how people react to what is being presented. In contrast to entering a designed physical space, the “threshold” one crosses when entering a digital exhibit on a computer screen has the same sensory experience as buying books or looking up pictures of cats. It is just another “click” in a long line of “clicks.”

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Death at a Memorial: National Memorial Arboretum

About the three weeks ago I returned from my third trip to England and it seems like every time I visit the United Kingdom it changes my views about America. This last trip around central England, the Midlands, led me to the National Memorial Arboretum. The National Memorial Arboretum lies outside of Lichfield and was officially opened in May 2011 as a “living memorial” to all British service men and women, with individual memorials to particular brigades, infantry and the like. The contributions of allies are also honored, for example Jewish and Polish servicemen. Uniquely the memorial also honors victims of infant mortality and children affected by war and conflict in its “Garden of Innocents” (notably Anne Frank is specifically memorialized by a tree that is never allowed to bud, symbolic of Frank’s life).

Upon entering the arboretum, amongst all the individual memorials and gardens, I immediately noticed a large memorial on a man-made hill at the center. This memorial was dedicated to all British service men and women killed in war since 1945. The Armed Forces Memorial seemed to naturally pull all the visitors to it. Admittedly, I cannot say that I have ever been particularly drawn to war memorials but this time was different and that is why I had to share my experience. Typically, the war memorials that I have seen in America portray grief in the sullen face of a bereaved solider or show a heroic captain in his glory. Something always seemed false to me about popular remembrance of past wars.

When I made it to the hill where the Armed Forces Memorial was located there were two major bronze works, created by Ian Rank-Broadley, their were curved walls inscribed with names of the fallen.I was shocked by what I saw. In fact there were a number of things that surprised me about the sculptures. I have heard Europeans say that Americans are a bit prudish and maybe they are right because I almost immediately noticed that the depicted fallen soldiers were nude. In American society nudity typically denotes two things: sexuality or vulnerability. Certainly, there was vulnerability in these memorials unlike the strength one typically sees in soldiers’ memorials. Memorials such as this now remind me of the flexibility of remembrance. I began to realize that I had never seen soldiers depicted in death at a war memorial (I am not claiming that this is the only depiction). It was a curious thing to see death displayed at a memorial; one sculpture depicts mourning family members in various states of despair as well. It was evocative of the very real experience of war which many times involves tragic loss. The memorial also makes a point to include women three times in the sculptures, twice as mourning family members (a wife and a mother) and once as a solider attending a male fallen solider, a move that seemed to me to be a more inclusive representation of women’s roles during conflict.

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Finally I turned my attention to the walls inscribed with veterans’ names. Of course, names on memorial statues or memorial walls is nothing new (my uncle’s name appears on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC and here in Illinois). What was missing was more thought-provoking to me than simply what was there. As visitors look across the engraved names then you realize that there are panels still empty and waiting vacant for more fallen soldiers names, ever increasingly being filled with causalities of conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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My visit to the National Memorial Arboretum touched me because it dares to speak on some of the realities of war while still honoring the fallen. As historians, who may be consulted in memorials such as these, what is the balance between honoring the dead and depicting reality (in its multiple forms)? The memorial also led me to think about the sensitive topic of memorials as propaganda, is that ever appropriate and if so, to what degree?

American Moments: An Engaging Exhibit for All

American Moments: The Legacy of Greek Immigration

(National Hellenic Museum: Chicago, IL)

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            “The story of American immigration is universal; yet, each immigrant community has brought along a unique culture and a history, now entwined into what Walt Whitman called the ‘composite American identity of the future.’”[1] American Moments: The Legacy of Greek Immigration is an exhibit currently on display at the National Hellenic Museum which effectively communicates the unique story of Greco-Americans from the late nineteenth century to today through the use of videos, photographs, artifacts, interactives, and audio oral history accounts. Following a linear and roughly chronological format, the overall argument of AmericanMoments is the notion that Greek immigrants, while determinedly preserving their own heritage, were nonetheless successful in assimilating to American culture and have since then had a profound effect on the nation’s history.

While the exhibit is celebratory and focused on the Greek immigrant narrative, the introductory label asks every visitor regardless of their ethnic background to contemplate the trials and hardships of all immigrants past and present through the lens of the Greek immigrant experience in the United States. This statement is crucial for it actively engages visitors of all ethnic backgrounds to consider questions and construct parallels either to their own immigrant ancestors on a personal level or to contemporary immigrants today; “through a long process of struggle, failure and success, immigrants became Americans and their various cultures became integral parts of the American mosaic”[2] Thus, American Moments: The Legacy of Greek Immigration, is a scholarly and engaging exhibit that all people, not simply Greeks, can enjoy and appreciate. Continue reading

Project Projects: Test Fit, Not Your Average Art Exhibit

The Kurokawa Gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago is a unique and unusual setting for an exhibition.  As both exhibition space and as a transitional area between the Art Institute’s Modern Wing and the Impressionism Galleries this gallery is a busy thorough-fare populated more by patrons on their way to the popular Caffé Moderno than by those willing to stop and study an exhibit.  Many exhibitions would find themselves at a disadvantage placed in such a highly trafficked space, but Project Projects: Test Fit, an exhibition designed by the New York-based graphic design firm Project Projects on display until April 28th, is not like most exhibitions.  Using reproductions of objects from the Art Institute’s permanent collection, this exhibition seeks to comment both on the traditional curatorial process and on how museum exhibitions are designed.  Rather than suffering from the fact that the majority of visitors will simply glance at a few of the pieces and neglect to read the text in the labels, Project Projects: Test Fit embraces this inevitability and uses it to its advantage.  The average visitor will enjoy experiencing Project Projects: Test Fit for its visually striking images while the engaged visitor will appreciate the exhibit for its witty, thought-provoking, and at times poetic label text.

The visitor does not approach the Kurokawa Gallery from the side in a way that would provide an obvious beginning space for the exhibitions housed there; instead, the visitor first sees the middle of the exhibition space.  Rather than place the introductory text panel in this middle area directly in front of the opening onto the gallery space the designers chose to immediately confront their visitors with some of the most visually engaging pieces in the exhibition.  The view of these images provokes interest and discussion on the part of the visitors whether or not they read the accompanying labels.  With the intentional selection of images and design of labels throughout Project Projects: Test Fit, the visitor, whether she engages with the image alone or the image and the label in combination, will invariably be prompted to consider larger issues than simply the aesthetics of the images shown.

The view upon entering the Project Projects: Test Fit exhibition

The view upon entering the Project Projects: Test Fit exhibition

While Project Projects: Test Fit has the ability to encourage all visitors to engage in a deeper way with the material on display, the real engagement occurs for those visitors who take the time to read the labels throughout the exhibition.  Continue reading