Talking About The Tough Stuff

How does one discuss a topic that history seemingly forgot to mention in our text books? Today on our visit to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, we learned a great deal about the slaves that George and Martha had. I had never considered Washington having slaves, nor do I ever remember learning about Washington having slaves in history class growing up. Yet, it makes sense given the world he lived in.

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So when you have guests come to your museum and they are surprised by its content- how do you handle it? How do you even begin to discuss it? As one interpreter told us so eloquently- with “truth, dignity, and grace.”

Mount Vernon’s exhibit, “Lives Bound Together,” attempts to create the scene of what it may have been like for slaves living on the ground of Mount Vernon under Washington. The exhibition is wonderful and rather in-depth. The interpreters on the ground really try to give you a sense of the opinions and views of the people that would have worked and lived during the time of Washington (and some with him).

Thinking back to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I ponder the slavery exhibition. Again, not an easy topic to discuss for many. Yet, the exhibition was so powerful and so immersive, but done with such grace. I felt the history being discussed and walked away with an immense gain of knowledge.

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I realize history is not always pleasant to discuss- there have been incredibly tragic moments. Yet, as a museum, we have a responsibility to discuss history, no matter how unpleasant or how it may make one person appear (even if history has taught us a different view). We must use these lessons of history as teachable moment to hopefully avoid future occurrences. Wednesday we are going to the Holocaust museum and I am very interested to see how this story is portrayed through their exhibitions.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture: “I cannot believe I am finally here.”

I have waited with such anticipation to see this museum since I learned we were going to be visiting. I had heard about the long lines and the lack of tickets for months and to be able to have the ability to go thrilled me.

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The museum is incredibly powerful and moving. From the design of the building, the layout of the exhibitions, to the staff who work there, it is all spectacular. There were so many parts of the visit that caused me to stop and ponder both emotionally and intellectually. It is hard to narrow down just one experience to discuss, yet I can think of one that made me very concerned.

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Today I learned a great deal about African Americans who fought in both the Revolutionary and Civil War. Their stories were powerful and moving, yet I had never heard of any of them before. How is this possible? Why is this history missing from my text book? I stopped and thought, “who gets to decide the narrative of what is incorporated into our textbooks and why does it suddenly feel so one-sided?” As a museum professional, it is so important to tell the stories that people either miss or know nothing about in our museums, we exist to educate the public and hold history in a public trust. The National Museum of African American History and Culture does just that, highlighting narratives that are so important to our American story but have yet to have been told on such a level until recently.

Object of Interest from the National Museum of African American History & Culture

Dorothy's Dress

An object that I found of interest at the National Museums of African American History and Culture is Dorothy’s Dress from the Broadway musical The Wiz. The Wiz is an amazing musical and has won countless Tony awards. As NMAAHC writes, “The song lyrics, script, sets, and costumes all reference and champion the struggles and triumphs of African Americans” (NMAAHC webpage “Ease on Down the Road”). This musical is incredibly powerful and the costumes unforgettable.

I personally really love this musical. My high school did a production of The Wiz and I was in it (but I was a very small part). I remember singing the songs every evening after rehearsal and to this day I still catch myself humming “Brand New Day.” Some of my favorite artists were also a part of the creation and production of this musical back in the 1970s such as Luther Vandross, Diana Ross, and Michael Jackson.

Dorothy’s dress is unique because although The Wiz is an adaptation from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, it looks nothing like the dress from the movie production of The Wizard of Oz in 1939.  I think there is a reason for that. While The Wiz may take pieces from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it is its own unique and influential work of art. I am interested in learning more about this piece and the meaning behind it. Why is it white with red ribbons? Why was Dorothy’s original blue dress passed for the creation of a new outfit? Is there a deeper meaning to its colors or its design? Was the designer trying to tell us (or show us) something? I feel that learning more about the dress can help explain many other aspects of the musical, and possibly what was happening in the world at the time of its creation.

Location: Culture/Fourth Floor 4 054