Two weeks ago, I chose to spend my first Sunday in the United States visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta. Having come to the States with a research project on the memory of race in cultural heritage, I thought it necessary to start my stay here by visiting the place where this man, global symbol of the American Civil Rights Movement, had started his amazing journey.
Located in Sweet Auburn, one of the most thriving African-American neighborhoods in the US from the early 1900s onwards, the center hosts a humble exhibition, which nonetheless succeeds in telling a compelling story about the life and works of Dr. King. Existing of no more than half a dozen ‘setups’, a good choice of pictures, texts, and short films manage to provide quite a deep understanding of the impact this extraordinary man has had – and of the lives and efforts of hundreds of thousands of others, who have worked, struggled and sometimes gave their lives for what are now considered basic human rights for African-Americans in the US.
In the last part of the exhibit, watching Dr. King’s funeral procession while listening to the last speech he ever made, my husband and I were both in tears. Both for the loss of such an exceptionally good person and for the knowledge that his Dream is still far from coming true. I was struck once more by what a powerful impact a simple exhibition can have on the minds and hearts of its visitors, and was strengthened in my belief that the research I was about to begin, was a relevant endeavor.
Less than one week later, the deep symbolic meanings of cultural heritage and its emotionally loaded character became the center of attention in the national media and worldwide. On Saturday August 12, white nationalist rallied in the college town of Charlottesville (Virginia), protesting a plan by local officials to remove the statue of confederate general Robert E. Lee from what used to be called Lee Park but was recently renamed Emancipation Park (for the background story on the issue, see this article in the NYTimes).
Statues, exhibits, museums, public works of art – they are rarely ‘just that’. For the most part, they have deeply rooted meanings, often confirming the ideas and beliefs of those that have instituted them. When others challenge these ideas and beliefs, these cultural institutions and artefacts – as unimportant as they might have seemed before – often become a battleground for opposing views. Studying them therefore provides important insights in what is currently going on in our societies, what people really think about issues that are rarely openly discussed, and what power relations are underlying it all. Many museums and other cultural institutions across the United States have not only condemned the violence in Charlottesville, they have also started to draft working papers to help each other ‘resist racism and oppression’ and make the museum a more inclusive place (for a link to one of these initiatives, see this Blog Post). I hope to be able to make my own small contribution to their effort.
– Jozefien De Bock
Thursday, August 17, 2017
Cooper Library, Clemson University